On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

May 10, 2007

Treatise on the Essentials of Cultivating the Mind

Hung-jen (early 8th century)

Question:  Why do you call the mind the fundamental teacher?

Answer:  The True Mind exists of itself and does not come from outside oneself.  As a teacher it does not even require any tuition fee! Nothing in all the three periods of time is more dear to a person than one’s mind. If you discern the Suchness inherent in the mind and maintain awareness of it, you will reach the other shore of nirvana. The deluded forsake it and fall into the three lower modes of existence. Therefore, it is known that the Buddhas of the three periods of time take their own True Mind as teacher.

Hence the treatise (Vimalakirti Sutra) says: “The existence of sentient beings is dependent on the waves of false consciousness, the essence of which is illusory.” By clearly maintaining awareness of the mind, the false mind will not be activated, and you will reach the state of birthlessness.  Therefore, it is known that the mind is the fundamental teacher.

Question: Why is the mind of ordinary people superior to the mind of the Buddhas?

Answer:  You cannot escape birth and death by constantly reflecting on buddhas divorced from yourself, but you will reach the other shore of nirvana by maintaining awareness of your own fundamental mind. Therefore, the Buddha says in the Diamond Sutra “Anyone who views me in terms of form and seeks me by sound is practicing a heretic path and is unable to see the Tathagata.” Therefore, it is known that maintaining awareness of the True Mind is superior to reflecting on Buddhas divorced from oneself.

In addition, the word “superior” is only used as a word of encouragement in the context of religious practice. In reality, the essence of the ultimate fruit of nirvana is uniformly “same” and without duality.

Question: If the true essence of sentient beings and the Buddhas is the same, then why is it that the Buddhas are not subject to the laws of generation and extinction, but have incalculable pleasures and are autonomous and unhindered in their activities, while we sentient beings have fallen into the realm of birth and death and are subject to various kinds of suffering?

Answer: All the Buddhas of the ten directions are enlightened to the Dharma Nature and distinctly illuminate the mind that is the source of all individual dharmas. They do not generate false thoughts, never fail in correct mindfulnessand extinguish the illusion of personal possession. Because of this, they are not subject to birth and death. Since they are not subject to birth and death, they have achieved the ultimate state of serene extinction.

Make effort! If you can maintain awareness of the True Mind without generating false thoughts or the illusion of personal possession, then you will automatically be equal to the Buddhas.

Question:  You say that the suchlike Dharma Nature is embodied by both sentient beings and the Buddhas identically and without duality. Therefore, if one group is deluded, both should be deluded. If one group is enlightened, both should be enlightened. Why are only Buddhas enlightened, while sentient beings are deluded?

Answer:  At this point we enter the inconceivable portion of this teaching, which cannot be understood by the ordinary mind. One becomes enlightened by discerning the mind; one is deluded because of losing awareness of True Nature. If the  conditions necessary for you to understand this occur, then they occur; it cannot be definitely explained. Simply rely on the ultimate truth and maintain awareness of your own True Mind.

Therefore, the Vimalakirti Sutra says: “Dharmas have no Self Nature and no Other Nature. Dharmas were fundamentally not generated in the first place and are not now extinguished. Enlightenment is to transcend the two extremes and enter into non discriminating wisdom. If you can understand this doctrine, then during all your activities you should simply maintain awareness of your fundamental Pure Mind. Do this constantly and fixedly, without generating false thought or the illusion of personal possession. Enlightenment will thus occur of itself.

If you ask a lot of questions, the number of doctrinal questions will become greater and greater. If you want to understand the essential point of Buddhism, then be aware that maintaining awareness of the mind is paramount. Maintaining awareness of the mind is the fundamental basis of nirvana, the essential gateway for entering the path, the basic principle of the entire Buddhist canon, and the patriarch of all the Buddhas of past, present, and future.

Hung-jen (early 8th century)

Excerpted from The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch’an Buddhism by John R. McRae 1986

This treatise recorded early in the history of Ch’an is another wonderful dialogue between students from around the year 700 with a teacher from the East Mountain teaching.  This particular section is devoted to leading “ordinary people to sagehood and to an understanding of the basic principle of emancipation.”

In the dialogues we can enter into the mind of the student and feel the energy of these timeless questions. Some are questions we’ve all had from time to time, but they are always interesting at any stage of practice. We will continue this dialogue next month as there are always endless questions students seem to come up with.

At some point, though, it is beneficial to let the mind rest and return to its natural state. After the reading if you can take a walk or sit and let the mind fold back into itself, that will enhance the realization of the intent of the dialogue. If we can read these with a “light touch” and avoid too much grasping, we will get the heart of the teaching easier.

              In the fifth month rains

              no trace of a path        

              where I can make my way,

              meadows of bamboo grass

              awash in muddy water

              Saigyo (1118-1190)

Rains imminent; ever enthusiastic,


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