At the end of 1991, I took refuge with the Triple Jewel during a session for reciting the Buddha’s name. I had encountered the Buddha’s teachings only a few months earlier, and was full of curiosity, although lacking in faith.
By February and March of 1992, I wasn’t so occupied with school, so I spent considerable time observing my surroundings, trying to see how changes in my state of mind would affect the things around me. I often became deeply absorbed in the objects of my observation. Most of the mental states I initially discovered were coarse forms of greed and anger; I didn’t know of any method for directly discerning the emotionally neutral state of delusion (such as through contemplation of the five hindrances of meditation). I was just concerned with the material world and didn’t have much interest in the emotional aspect of things. The only things I wanted to know were whether ignorance really existed in a state of emotional calmness, and whether cultivation could really increase one’s wisdom.
There was one phenomenon that I had also observed as a child. Many people have probably had the same experience. If you keep looking at a (Chinese) character, it starts looking less and less like itself. It‘s quite peculiar how you can have two different perceptions of a particular character or event. When I was little, the two states seemed so vastly different I began to doubt my instinctive, everyday perception of things; and an unspeakable sense of insecurity stopped me from investigating further. By early 1992, this obstruction no longer existed. I had fewer things to fear and much more interest in the subject than when I was little.
After a period of observation, I discovered a secret. If I am looking at a large black character written with a thick brush, and I intently try to observe every part simultaneously--not only the boundary between the black strokes and the white background, but also the inner details of each stroke--when my observation is fine enough to differentiate a third of the thickness of each stroke, the character no longer resembles itself. At that point I am much more aware of the inner parts of each stroke than usual. In my usual unobservant state, I notice only the places where the black ink meets the white background; I am totally unaware of the details within each stroke, and I only the see the character as a whole. In other words, I would alternate between the two states depending on whether or not I noticed the inner details of each stroke.
When I observed the details of the transition between the two experiences, I was astonished, because it meant that I couldn’t be so certain that “what the eyes see is real.” If our mental perception changes, we might see many everyday matters and ideas that we take for granted in a different light. At that point I vaguely felt that ignorance did exist, and that it could be eliminated through cultivation. That’s when I began to have faith in the Buddhadharma. My understanding was definitely much less advanced during the recitation session a few months earlier. Seeing everyone get up before dawn to recite the Buddha’s name seemed very bitter to me. I didn’t realize that it was absolutely necessary. Before I left, I asked one of the nuns, “Dharma Master, how often do you get a holiday so you can rest?” Her reply was, “We do this day in and day out.”
This kind of contemplation is not limited to one faculty. In using my ear to contemplate as I recited the Buddha’s name, I also discovered my own faults. During the recitation of each syllable of “Namo Amitofo,” the mind relaxes for a moment; when the syllable changes, for example from “Na” to “mo,” the mind perks up and becomes attentive again. If you listen carefully to each recited syllable, to the point of being able to discriminate one-third of that interval, the recitation sounds starts to sound different and you will be much less easily distracted in your contemplation of the recitation.
As to contemplation of the body, I am reminded of the daily practice of bowing to the Venerable Master. In the beginning I was satisfied to simply bow down and get up the required 108 times. After a few days, it occurred to me that while my body was bowing, my mind should not be idle either. So then, instead of using my fingers or recitation beads, I started to count the bows in my mind. For some reason, my mind often lost count. When I analyzed the process of bowing, I discovered that it happened when I was bowing down. When my body was on the cushion, my mind would say, “Now relax for a while.” As soon as I lost my thought of sincerity, my mind became unclear. As my elbows touched the cushion, my whole body relaxed. When I got up, my body became alert again. The coming and going of my sincerity as my body went up and down was making me lose count. Then I told myself, “I can’t bow the way a hammer hits the ground. I can’t relax; I have to be equally alert all the way through. Even though my body goes up and down, my mental clarity should not change.” After that, I was able to silently count my bows.
Through similar methods, I was able to detect many of my other faults. In contrast to the above examples, the resolution of these problems required not only contemplative wisdom, but all three studies of precepts, concentration, and wisdom, simultaneously applied. For instance, I tried to contemplate a character to the fineness of one-tenth of the thickness of a stroke. Even though I maintained proper mindfulness, due to insufficient oncentration power I wasn’t able to contemplate every part of the character simultaneously. In order to reach that level of subtlety, I have to cultivate Chan samadhi, which means subduing and bringing my desires to a much lower level. These experiments show how delusion is closely connected to greed and anger. They also indicate how impractical it would be to study the principles of the Buddhadharma hoping to obtain wisdom, without faith or the willingness to get rid of desires. These interactions between precepts, samadhi, and wisdom and greed, anger, and delusion are speaking the Dharma for me and are solidifying and deepening my faith in Buddhism.