Winter has come, and with it not only the cold weather, but also the hot Chan sessions, so I will relate my talk of today to the topic of Chan. I like Chan sessions. Somehow I am aware of how worthy they are, and how fortunate are those of us who have the opportunity to participate in them. We should not take them for granted, so I want to express my deepest gratitude to all of those who make that possible, especially to those who work in the kitchen and provide us with nutritious food every day. We could say that they give us a delicious medicine. However, what about the proctors--those guys who approach us silently from behind and hit our back with a stick when we are sleeping during the sitting periods. Can we also feel gratitude, or do we just see them as very annoying people? In contrast to the cooks, they give us a bitter medicine, and it requires some effort to gladly accept it. Nevertheless, we all should know that their work and intention is to help us to not waste our precious time in the Chan Hall, so I am also grateful to them. Should we revive the tradition of putting our palms together when they wake us?
Last Thanksgiving, I had the fortune of meeting every morning with a group of young men who came to participate in a Chan session of three days held here at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (CTTB). They decided to spend their vacation in quite an unusual way: enduring cold and pain. Wouldn’t you say that’s strange? Somehow they know that this external suffering is something that has to be endured to gain internal happiness. We discussed several topics, such as the meaning of freedom and discipline. If we ask anyone what is freedom, their most direct answer will be: “to do what I want.” However, this is not the definition of freedom, but that of slavery. Why? Because what we want is just to please our selfish ego, which is never satisfied. Therefore, true freedom is to be liberated from this tyranny. It is to base our happiness on following wisdom and not egotistic desires and egocentric impulses. Freedom has to be looked for in altruism, in expanding our minds. Self-discipline is necessary to eliminate those childish bad habits that drain our energy and confidence, so we should not feel it as repression but as a tool that allows us to grow as human beings. Our minds should catch up in maturation with our bodies; otherwise we will be no more than children with the appearance of adults.
As usually happens during Chan sessions, the starring topic was pain. I told them a story that happened to me in the last winter Chan session here at CTTB. At that time, I was dealing with such intense pain that I could not finish the sitting periods in full lotus, which disappointed me a lot. This situation continued for about the first week of the session. But one evening, after listening to a tape of the Venerable Master encouraging us to endure extreme pain, I decided to make a formal vow in front of the Triple Jewel: I would sit straight in full lotus every sitting period, no matter what. That day there was just one more sit before finishing so I sat ceremoniously, aware of the responsibility that I had just acquired, and it did not take that long before I realized I was in big trouble. Very soon the pain was so severe that the idea of going like that for the whole period seemed impossible; that period seemed to last an eternity. I wrestled and twisted my body in all possible forms, but the pain always came back, even stronger, so I panicked. I was about to establish the new record of the fastest broken vow ever taken. I grabbed my leg and with the seriousness that the situation required, I was just going to put it down, when the magical happened. Inside my head, I could hear a very melodious voice singing: “Maha Prajna Paramita.” I was so surprised that I forgot the pain and just tried to investigate where that voice came from, and I was engaged in this when I heard the “ting” of the bell indicating that the sit was over. I had passed the test thanks to the help of that opportune and compassionate voice. During the remaining two weeks of the session I was able to maintain the vow; somehow, it endowed me with enough strength to endure pain and to concentrate better. The response to this effort came right after the session finished: I decided to leave home. I could see very clearly impermanence, how short life is, and that nothing can surpass the joy of devoting our lives to studying and practicing the teachings of the Buddha.
The Venerable Master mentioned how sometimes he could smell delicious fragrances while he was a novice in China and had to sit in meditation during the freezing nights, and this reminded me of a personal story that happened in a Japanese temple during a winter Zen session. This was a small temple located in the mountains between Kyoto and Nara, for me the holiest region of this country. During one of the walking periods, a monk joined the rest of us, and soon the room was filled with the unmistakable foot odor. That was the situation when a little insect entered the room, and it was this monk who delicately took it and put it outside, and just then the very same stinky smell changed into a flower scented fragrance that lingered for a while. It was hard to believe. It was likely his compassionate deed that provoked this response. Saving the life of a little insect may look meaningless to our eyes, but not to the spiritual Dharma protectors.
I want to finish by sharing with you a little Chan story: a monk approached his old Chan Master and asked him: “Master, could you please tell me what is the ultimate and most essential meaning of the Dharma?” The Master remained silent for a while and then replied: “If you want to know it, first you must bow once with utmost sincerity and respect in front of the Buddha image, and then I will transmit this sublime teaching to you.” The disciple did not wait a single moment, and proceeded to bow to the Buddha with great reverence. And as he was doing so, the Master approached him and unexpectedly “pum!” kicked his bottom! And the Master immediately asked him: “Did you get the teaching?” The disciple was so startled by the bizarre situation that he burst into laughter and got enlightened. He said that after that moment, he never stopped laughing for the rest of his life. He thoroughly understood what the Heart Sutra says: there is nothing to be attained. Amitabha’s Pure Land is as far as the thickness of our ignorance, but does ignorance have a thickness?