On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

Feb 09 2008

“Do not grasp another’s bow”

Ta Hui (1088-1163)

“Do not grasp another’s bow; do not ride another’s horse; do not meddle in another’s affairs.” Though this is a commonplace saying, it can also be sustenance for entering the Path. Just examine yourself constantly: from morning to night, what do you do to help others and help yourself? If you notice even the slightest partiality or insensitivity, you must admonish yourself. Don’t be careless about this!

In the old days Ch’an Master Tao Lin lived up in a tall pine tree on Ch’in Wang Mountain; people of the time called him the ‘Bird’s Nest Monk.’ When Minister Po Chu-yi was commander of Ch’ien T’ang, he made a special trip to the mountain to visit him. Po said, “It’s very dangerous where you’re sitting, Ch’an Master.” The Master said, “My danger may be very great, Minister, but yours is even greater.” Po said, “I am the commander of Ch’ien T’ang: what danger is there?” The Master said, “Fuel and fire are joined, consciousness and identity do not stay: how can you not be in danger?”

Po also asked, “What is the overall meaning of the Buddhist teaching?” The Master said, “Don’t commit any evils; practice the many virtues.” Po said, “Even a three year old child could say this.” The Master said, “Though a three year old child can say it, an eighty year old man cannot carry it out.” Po then bowed and departed.

Now if you want to save mental power, do not be concerned with whether a three year old child can say it, or whether or not an eighty year old man can carry it out.  Just don’t do any evil, and you have mastered these words. They apply whether you believe or not, so please think it over.

If, with a straightforward mind and straightforward conduct, you are able to seize supreme enlightenment directly, this can be called the acts of a real person of power. The concerns that have come down from numberless ages are only in the present: if you can understand them right now, then the concerns of numberless ages will instantly disperse, like tiles being scattered or ice melting. If you don’t understand them right now, you’ll pass through countless eons more, and it’ll still be just as it is.  The truth that is as it is has been continuous since antiquity without ever having varied so much as a hairsbreadth.

Matters of worldly anxieties are like the links of a chain, joining together continuously without a break. If you can do away with them, do away with them immediately! Because you have become habituated to them since beginningless time, to the point where they have become totally familiar, if you don’t exert yourself to go beyond them, then as time goes on and on, with you unknowing and unawares, they will have entered deeply into you.  Finally, on the last day of your life, you won’t be able to do anything about it. If you want to be able to avoid going wrong when you face the end of your life, then from now on whenever you do anything, don’t let yourself slip. If you go wrong in your present doings, it will be impossible not to go wrong when you’re facing death.

There’s a sort of person who reads scriptures, recites the Buddha-name, and repents in the morning, but then in the evening runs off at the mouth, slandering and vilifying other people. The next day he does homage to the Buddha and repents as before. All through the years till the end of his life he take this as daily ritual-this is extreme folly. Such people are far from realizing that the Sanskrit word kshama means to repent faults. This is called “cutting off the continuing mind.” Once you have cut if off, do not commit wrongdoings again.

The mind, discriminating intellect, and consciousness of students of the Path should be quiet and still twenty four hours a day. When you have nothing to do, you should sit quietly and kept the mind from slackening and the body from wavering. If you practice to perfection over a long, long time, naturally body and mind will come to rest at ease, and you will have some direction in the Path.  The perfection of quiescence and stillness indeed settles the scattered and confused false consciousness of sentient beings, but if you cling to quiescent stillness and consider it the ultimate, then you’re in the grip of perverted “silent illumination” Ch’an.

By keeping mindful of the matter of birth and death, your mental technique is already correct. Once the mental technique is correct, then you won’t need to use effort to clear your mind as you respond to circumstances in your daily activities. When you actively try to clear your mind, then you won’t go wrong; since you don’t go wrong, correct mindfulness stands out alone. When correct mindfulness stands out alone, inner truth adapts to phenomena; when inner truth adapts to things and events, events and things come to fuse in inner truth. When phenomena fuse with their inner truth, you save power; when you feel the saving, this is the empowerment of studying the Path. In gaining power you save unlimited power; in saving power you gain unlimited power.

This matter will be taken up by brilliant quick-minded folks, but if you depend on your brilliance and quick wits, you won’t be able to bear up. It is easy for keen and bright people to enter, but hard for them to preserve it. That’s because generally their entry is not very deep and the power is meager. With the intelligent and quick-witted, as soon as they hear a spiritual friend mention this matter, their eyes stir immediately and they are already trying to gain understanding through their mind’s discriminating intellect. People like this are creating their own hindrances, and will never have a moment of awakening.

This is what Yung Chia meant when he said, “The loss of wealth of the Dharma and the demise of virtue all stem from mind’s discriminating intellect.”

The obstruction of the Path by the mind and its conceptual discrimination is worse than poisonous snakes or fierce tigers. Why? Because poisonous snakes and fierce tigers can still be avoided, whereas intelligent people make the mind’s conceptual discrimination their home, so that there’s never a single instant, whether they’re walking, standing, sitting or lying down, that they’re not having dealings with it. As time goes on, unknowing and unawares, they become one piece with it; not because they want to, either, but because since beginningless time they have followed this one little road until it’s become set and familiar. Though they may see through it for a moment and wish to detach from it, they still can’t. Thus it is said that poisonous snakes and fierce tigers can still be avoided, but the mind’s conceptual discrimination truly has no place for you to escape.

 Letter to Li Hsien-ch’en -Ta Hui (1088-1163)

Excerpted from Swampland Flowers The Letter and Lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui Trans by Christopher Cleary


Whenever we are reading part of a letter to a practitioner written hundreds of years ago, we are attempting to bridge time and cultural barriers. Because we all share the same sense of adventure and quest for truth, no matter how many years intervene, we share the same spark that drives explorers everywhere. What I particularly enjoy about this letter is that this is not a lecture to a hall full of monks, but a personal letter written to one practitioner. Reading it as if it was written to you, imagine what it would feel like to open this and try to hear clearly the teaching.  As usual this takes some translation because of time and place, but with a little stretching, the understanding becomes clear.

The beauty of Buddhism is how it was tailored to the needs and abilities of those present. Buddha had many teachings with varying levels of understanding. While we know that the heart of enlightenment cannot be actually conveyed in words and letters, thankfully, there are still many teachers who have attempted to point the way. There are many levels of practice intimated in the above letter; any one practice point could be embraced for a lifetime and not lead one astray.  

In the above letter there are many fine points; perhaps one of them will provide a practice point for a few years.  Our modern minds seem to move so quickly onto the next “understanding” that we never fully absorb the one we were working on before. Or as we have heard in practice,

“Understand a grain of rice through and through

and you understand the nature of the Universe.”

Hsueh-feng in the Blue Cliff Record

Find whatever grain of truth speaks to you and embrace it for a lifetime!

With Enthusiasm,