Zen (Chan) and Daily Living

Translated from a Dharma lecture by Grand Master Wei Chueh



When we realize the truth of Zen, we can transcend the mundane and achieve sainthood. When we realize that this very mind is beyond thought and argument, we can bring forth all kinds of wondrous functions and every word and action in our daily life will benefit."
Grand Master Wei Chueh

“Zen” is the most important teaching in Buddhism.  The ancients sages say, “To cultivate the Way and study Buddhism, we must work hard from three perspectives: learning the Buddha’s words, the Buddha’s actions, and the Buddha’s mind.” Zen is the Buddha’s mind. To study any sutra or cultivate any school of Buddhism, if we do not know the principles of Zen, we have not learned the essence of the Buddha’s mind.  Because Zen is our fundamental mind and nature, if we lose sight of our fundamental mind and nature, our study of Buddhism will lose its direction.

The sutra says, “Zen is the Buddha’s mind, the scriptures are the Buddha’s words, the precepts are the Buddha’s body.” All the schools of Buddhism place special emphasis on “Zen.” Those who practice Pure Land Buddhism recite the Buddha’s name until their mind is completely tranquil. This is known as the Samadhi of reciting the Buddha’s name. This is “Zen.” It is said, “If a person recites Amituofo with a concentrated mind, it is unsurpassed, profound, and wondrous Zen.”

The aim of cultivating and studying Buddhism is to transcend life and death, to transcend the mundane and achieve sainthood, to transform knowledge into wisdom, to ascend to the Pure Land. The Pure Land refers to our very mind. When the mind is pure, it is the Pure Land. When the mind is not pure, it is the ‘defiled land.’ By observing and examining from this viewpoint, we know that no matter which method we use, our practice cannot be separated from “Zen.” Zen encompasses everything.

Zen is a Necessary Practice in Our Present Society

The sutra mentions that the cultivator of the Way should practice three things: 1)  do all good,  dispel all evil,  accumulate blessings and merits. 2)  study and learn extensively,  increase our wisdom. 3)  practice meditation (cultivate Samadhi).

This underscores the importance of Zen in our cultivation. Therefore in the  “Twenty five kinds of perfect understanding of the truth” of the Shurangama Sutra, every Dharma method elaborates the principle of samadhi. The Buddhist sutra says, “If one meditates for even one moment, it surpasses the building of innumerable seven-jeweled pagodas. The jeweled pagoda will eventually turn to dust, but the mind’s one pure thought will lead to enlightenment.” From this we can see that “Zen” is the necessary course for cultivating the Way and studying Buddhism.

“Zen” is also the necessary course of study for people in our present day society, especially since society has now moved from the agricultural era and reached the industrial and technological age. The pace of living is now busier and more complicated. It is no longer like the former agricultural society when the minds of people were purer and simpler– “Work when the sun rises, rest when the sun sets; drink by drawing water from the well, eat by tilling the fields; I do not rely on the sovereign”—the mind was tranquil and at ease. The mind of tranquility, peace, and freedom are in accord with “Zen.”  But in our present industrial society, in all our daily activities, the mind of humans is stressed and lacking in peace and tranquility.  Therefore, there are many signs of disorder and unrest in our society.

Modern society emphasizes and promotes the values of a materialistic civilization, so most people constantly seek a materialistic life and neglect the importance of the life of the spirit. But when  the seeking of external objects becomes extreme, it is easy to delude our fundamental and original mind. Therefore, in order for this mind to be truly at ease, peaceful, and stable, we must abide by the principles of Zen, so that all the activities in our daily life will be orderly, and life will be happy and meaningful.

Zen is a mind of peace and stability. That is why it is intimately related to our daily life. Furthermore, when we realize the meaning and importance of Zen, we must realize and penetrate the truth of Zen practice, practice it diligently, then life will be meaningful and we will improve/perfect our practice. 

The True Meaning of Zen

Zen has two meanings: the first is its true meaning; the second it its infinite meaning. The true meaning of Zen is unspeakable; it transcends language and speech. This is because this mind is originally complete; it is beyond thought and arguments.  If it is capable of thought and argument, it will fall into the cycle of birth and death and into dualism, then it would not be the unconditioned/absolute mind. The Zen masters say, “It is an error to arouse the mind; it is wrong to give rise to thoughts.” If we speak of it, it would no longer be the ultimate truth.

If we realize the principle of Zen, we will know its truest meaning. It is, “Like drinking water, we know its coolness and warmth.” It is unspeakable. Even though I know the taste of the water, no matter how I describe it, others will not be able to realize its taste unless they drink it themselves. For example, when Shakyamuni Buddha held up a flower on the Spiritual Mountain and Manakashyapa smiled, in the transmission of the Dharma, no words were needed, yet it manifested the subtle function of this mind. Looking at it from this viewpoint, Zen is realization—realization of the nature of this mind. This very mind is reality.  But although the truest meaning cannot be spoken of, we can still try to speak about it.  Speaking of it is an expedient means and helps to elucidate the many merits of Zen.

When we realize the truth of Zen, we can transcend the mundane and achieve sainthood. When we realize that this very mind is beyond thought and argument, we can exhibit wondrous functions. When this mind is master of itself, all our activities in our daily life will be perfectly correct. As Zen Master Pai Chang said, “The great cultivator does not ignore causality.” What does it mean ‘not to ignore causality’?  It is to realize this mind, whether we are walking, standing, sitting, or lying down,  everything that we do is always just right and is in accord with the law of causality.  Not only is it in accord with the law of causality, everywhere is Zen, every dharma is Buddha dharma; even when we carry wood or transport rice, it is a supernatural and wondrous function.  Because when this very mind is clear and lucid, still and tranquil, it is reality, and reality is Zen.  Therefore the ancient sages say, “When the six sense organs are in harmony, the body is at ease; unmoved by external phenomena, there is no need to ask for Zen.” If we face external circumstances without arousing the mind, without moving our thoughts, that is Zen. That is what the Diamond Sutra speaks of as “the mind of non-abidance.”

The Infinite Meaning of Zen

When we realize this mind, and the essential principle of reality, we can begin to manifest the infinite principle, because all dharmas are not separate from this very mind.  Therefore we have previously stated that there are two meanings in Zen: one is its true meaning, one is its infinite meaning.  What is “infinite meaning”? It means that Zen is replete with infinite and wondrous truth, representing wisdom, samadhi, and compassion; even all the merits within the mind are the wondrous functions of Zen; whether it is the principle of relative dogma, true dogma, or middle way dogma, they all are the functions of this mind, they are totally attributed to Zen. Therefore Zen is infinite in meaning.

“Zen is the Buddha’s mind, the scriptures are the Buddha’s words, the precepts are the Buddha’s body.” After we realize the meaning and wondrous function of Zen in our daily lives, we must constantly learn from the Buddha’s body, words, and mind in our daily lives.  Then we will truly put into effect the practice of Zen.

“The Buddha’s body” is the 3000 proper deportments/regulations and the 80,000 duties spoken of in the Buddhist scriptures. These principles, regulations, and rules are all created by the mind.

“The Buddha’s words”—the Buddha taught for 49 years, speaking of existence and emptiness, persuading repeatedly; all his teachings—Zen, purity, precepts, the esoteric, expedient means, gradual cultivation, sudden enlightenment—all these are manifestations of the mind.  Therefore the ancient scholars say,  “All dharmas flow from this origin, they all return to this dharma realm.”  All conditioned and unconditioned dharma, dharmas with and without outflows, relative dogma, true dogmas, middle way ultimate truth dogmas, all arise from true reality.  “Expedient means has many doors, yet they all have one origin.”  All dharmas originate from this mind; beyond this mind, not a single dharma is attained. If we do not understand this principle, no matter which method we use to study Buddhism, we will be taking the long road, we will only be planting good roots and will have to wait a long time before we can attain liberation. Why? It is because all truths flow from this mind.  Practicing apart from this mind is like relinquishing the source and chasing the trivial (end). Therefore the great Master Hsuan Jue said, “When we attain the source, we need not worry about the outcome.” The “source” is the Zen mind. When we realize this Zen mind, we have obtained the source, then everything will be easy; this is truly great wealth and honor; this enables us to attain liberation.

The Ksitigarbha Sutra says, “Sentient beings from Jambudvīpa, their every action and thought is karma and sin.” Every thought in the mind of the Buddha is wisdom, is samadhi, has miraculous powers and subtle function. Sentient beings are just the opposite.   Why do sentient beings and the Tathagatha both have this mind, yet their thoughts and retributions are different? This is because the Buddha’s mind is already enlightened, it is the Zen mind.  The Zen mind is the mind of Shifu preaching the Dharma, the mind of all of you listening to the Dharma. This mind constantly abides in wisdom and samadhi, it is clear and lucid; it is always master of itself. But the mind of sentient beings is constantly arising and ceasing, afraid of gains and losses,  greedy for wealth, sex, fame, food, sleep, power, status, etc. Therefore, every thought in the mind of sentient beings is filled with sin and karmic retribution.  When we understand this principle/truth, we will realize how important Zen is in our daily life. 

Zen and Human Life

“Zen and human life” can be spoken of from three aspects: 1) Zen and daily living, 2) Zen and our existence, 3) Zen and our life.

First, Zen and daily living: Zen has a very important influence on our daily life. If we truly comprehend the Zen mind, achieve samadhi, this mind will constantly be at ease and we will see everything clearly. This is the state of returning to the mind’s source. This function is only possible if one comprehends “Zen.”

Most people do not understand the principle of Zen; their minds are always scattered, their desires never cease, they are never satisfied. Human desires are endless, but material existence is limited. Using limited material objects to satisfy people’s unlimited desires is impossible. Because all people are seeking material gains at the same time, this gives rise to competition and confrontation in society, easily leading to hatred and conflicts.  This leads the whole world to constantly grasp/fight for the same thing to benefit the self, and this starts wars. Why? It is because the human mind is filled with the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance; people aggressively seek external material objects, and this gives rise to attachments, vexations, and disputes.

People will risk their lives to seek external things because their minds feel empty and  are  filled with vexations; therefore they seek stimulation in their material lives to fill their feelings of emptiness and to relieve their vexations.  Before they get what they want they are always greedy and seeking. After they get what they want they feel it is nothing, therefore they seek new stimulations. They are constantly in the midst of gaining and losing,  grasping and rejecting, and are never satisfied,

A material existence is illusive and only gives temporary satisfaction by stimulating the senses. Therefore, even if people have abundant material possessions, they cannot obtain true happiness and blessings; their six roots of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind may  feel very comfortable at first,  but when  the stimulations  reach a saturation point, feelings of joy and comfort disappear, and side effects may even appear, bringing disaster and misfortune. For example, take smoking and using drugs: in the beginning, one feels very good; when it becomes a habit, the body is poisoned, then one finds that one cannot kick the habit. This results in intense suffering and may even threaten life itself.

Most people now never tire of pursuing a material life; this is also a way of gradually poisoning themselves.  Often, the more they seek these objects, the more empty they feel, and the less satisfied they become. In order to extinguish this gradual intoxication, one must use certain methods. One should use wisdom and practice meditation to transform  the body and mind. When body and mind are pure, peaceful, and free, one will see through and deemphasize this material existence, realize that “to be content is to be always happy.” When people are content, the mind will become stable and calm. This mind of tranquility and contentment is the beginning of Zen practice.

Most people do not realize these truths. They will risk their lives, unremittingly seek  the comfort and ease of a materialistic life; they feel that when they obtain the enjoyment of material objects, fame, and profit, then life will be rich and fulfilling. But actually, the more people seek material things, the poorer they become. The ancient sages say, “To be a poor man is not poverty; a poor mind is true poverty. The poor can cultivate the Way; that is the poor cultivator (poor in body but not poor in the way).” When the mind is poor and without wisdom, people will degenerate into the realm of hungry ghosts. Therefore, whether one is rich or poor is not measured by material wealth.  When the mind is filled with emptiness and vexations, that is true poverty.

Many famous people of wealth and fame still have many vexations. For example, their children may  be a disappointment—they don’t study hard, they may make harmful friends, all day long, they only want to enjoy themselves, eventually becoming delinquents, or gangsters, depleting the family fortune, ending up with nothing. Or one is not satisfied with just one wife and gets one or more concubines. The family is then no longer harmonious, constantly quarrelling, resulting in all kinds of vexations. Most people think that money can buy everything. Yet the wealthy are constantly afraid of blackmailers or kidnappers; living in constant fear, they hire bodyguards to ensure the safety of their family. So we can see that money does not always bring happiness.

Buddhism says, “Wealth, sex, fame, food, and sleep are the five roots of hell.”  Most people usually seek a materialistic life; they do not know how to calm and stabilize this mind. Actually, if we have samadhi and wisdom, even though our material life is poor, we will still be very happy. If we do not have samadhi and wisdom, do not know the life of the spirit, and only know to pursue a materialistic life, even though we are extremely wealthy, we will still have many vexations.

Therefore the ancient sages say, “to be content is to always be happy.” We must be content, then life will be peaceful, stable, and happy, During the  Warring States period in China, there was a hermit, Yen Chou, who said: “To eat late is equal to eating meat; to walk peacefully is equal to riding; to have no sin is equal to being noble.”  Even though it’s simple food, when one is hungry, everything tastes delicious; this is “To eat late is equal to eating meat.”. “To walk peacefully is equal to riding:” even though we may feel dignified when we ride in a carriage, when we come to a one lane narrow pathway, even if it is for a short 30 or 40 feet, we will need to detour around it; it is not as carefree as walking. “To have no sin is equal to being noble:” most people think that  honor is to hold a high government position, or to be successful in their job, but wealth and honor are like flowers that open and wilt, dying very quickly. So what is true wealth and honor? When the mind is free from vexations, when no bad karma is created,  and this mind constantly maintains stillness, then this mind is filled with brightness. A common saying is, “If we do not act against our conscience, we will not fear if mara knocks on the door at midnight.”  If we have acted against our conscience, even though we are immaculately attired, our mind is filled with ignorance and darkness. Outwardly we look like a human being, but inwardly we are like a lower animal. When we plant the cause of the three evil realms, we will later receive the evil retribution of these three realms. Therefore, this is not true wealth and honor.

If we can always be content and happy, that is true wealth and honor. If we wish to attain this state, we must be able to see through things and let go, then the mind will be at peace. If we can achieve this, our daily life will be satisfying, blessed, happy, free and illuminated—that is the life of Zen.

The Meaning of Existence

When there is Zen in our daily life, life will be fulfilling and blessed. But what is the meaning of our existence in this world? The ancient people speak of the three imperishables—“one’s virtue, achievements, and teachings,” but now not many people live according to this principle.  Most people only know pragmatism and utilitarianism; they feel that they exist solely for fame and glory, wealth and honor, for seeking the pleasures of the opposite sex, seeking the enjoyment of material things, seeing who has the most in the bank, who owns more houses, who has the best car, wishing to have the highest position, to have the most money. Therefore, when one has a hundred dollars, one wishes to have a thousand, when one has a thousand, one wishes for ten thousand, eventually even hoping to own the whole world. This is what most people speak of as development, acceleration, and explosion—these are common ills of our present society.  If these concepts of material gain continue to develop, bad relationships between people will become a vicious cycle, the world will quickly reach the state of destruction and extinction.

A disciple at Chung Tai who was once a manager, wishing to expand his business, worked from morning to night, attending social affairs and innumerable meetings,  leading a busy and deluded existence each day, always thinking of ways to make more money, yet always feeling he didn’t have enough.  One day he finally felt that he could no longer cope with it all. He later came to the Zen center to attend the Zen classes and to study Buddhism; he then realized that “when the mind is pure , one naturally feels refreshed,” and he rediscovered his mind, repented his past life of indulgence and all the bad karma he created by body, speech and mind. He gave up all his bad habits and started living a meaningful and fulfilling life. Actually, there are many people like him in our society—they concentrate on seeking fame, profit, wealth, and sex; they do not have a right concept of the principles and values of life; they just follow the stream. This kind of existence will cause one to perish with the grasses and trees.

If we understand the principles of Buddhism, we will know to constantly examine this mind, no matter what we do or what career we pursue. Whether we practice medicine, manage a company, or pursue knowledge, we should work to benefit others. For example, those who pursue politics should use a mind of compassion to elect their officials, for the benefit of country and society, with the hope that people will live in peace and be happy with their jobs, and that the country will be strong and prosperous.  Then no matter whether they are government representatives or high officials, they can be Bodhisatvas. The Universal Gate chapter of Bodhisattva Guan Yin tells us clearly, “If sentient beings need to be liberated by certain forms, the Bodhisattva will assume that form to liberate them.” When one becomes the head of a government and can treat every person with a mind of great compassion, impartiality, and respect, so that all sentient beings are bathed by compassion and brightness,  that is the Bodhisattva Way.  To elevate ourselves this way, our existence will be valuable and meaningful.

But if we wish to understand the value and meaning of our existence, we must have some understanding and realization of the Buddhist teaching and actualize it. How do we actualize the teaching? We must understand that everyone has Buddha nature; this is also the very nature of our mind; it is inherent in us; it is a mind of equanimity/impartiality. When we understand this principle, we will surely be able to use this mind of compassion toward all sentient beings. This is Bodhisattva Guan Yin’s spirit of “great kindness to the known and unknown; compassion to all sentient beings.” When we spread our compassion everywhere, to all sentient beings, that is the Bodhisattva Way.  If we truly wish to attain this state, we must penetrate our Zen practice, realize the inherent Buddha nature in all sentient beings, that is to truly manifest the vow of “kindness to the known and unknown; compassion to all sentient beings”  without being the least pretentious. Therefore if we penetrate the practice and understanding of Zen, we will truly realize the meaning and value of life.

According to the Bodhisattava, the meaning and value of our existence lies in practicing to uphold the precepts. The ancient sages say, “I would rather die while upholding the precepts; be born when not violating the precepts”—this is the very principle. The Confucians say, “When wealthy and noble one should not be extravagant, when poor one should not be swayed; when powerful, one should not yield to force (be easily influenced” this is to truly be a man of fortitude and courage; this is not just a slogan; we must truly be able to achieve it. But now these Confucian ideas and even family values and principles and order in society are gradually deteriorating. In the family, the father doesn’t act like a father, the son doesn’t behave like a son. In school, the students beat the teacher. In the organizations of society, subordinates defy their superiors, superiors do not respect their subordinates.  Present society cannot be compared to  agricultural society—in those days, the minds of people were more simple and sincere (honest).  In this age, the minds of people are easily prone to vexations and worries; it is therefore difficult to make them observe the ancient moral principles.

Why do people have vexations and worries?  It is because their minds are not at peace.  By penetrating Zen practice to realize the truth of life, using prajna wisdom to observe all phenomena of the world, we can see things clearly. If we calm this mind, we will be able to give rise to wisdom. The sutra says, “All pure wisdom arises from samadhi.”  Because most people do not have this pure wisdom, they do not clearly see the reality of things, easily make mistakes, create all kinds of bad karma, and lose the meaning and value of life.

If we can grasp this very mind, then naturally, we will have the correct view and brightness in our daily life and of our character, and realize the meaning of our existence.  If people only seek sensory enjoyment (carnal pleasures), merits, fame, and profit, living only to bear children, this is almost similar to the life of the animals. Even animals know they need to survive; they also have to live, eat, and enjoy life. Therefore we humans should elevate ourselves. We must elevate ourselves by cultivating the Way from the mind, from quality of life, and morality (the way of virtue.)

What is the “way of virtue”?  The “way” is “cultivating the precepts, meditation, and wisdom” leading us to finally realize the truth of “wu wei (無為),” realize this original pure and lucid mind: this is the Way. What is “virtue”? It is to cultivate all good deeds. “If we succeed in cultivating virtue, our virtuous nature will manifest.” “The way of virtue” can elevate our existence to a higher level.

If we can realize that “the way of virtue” is the highest level of existence, we will be able to discriminate in both our material and spiritual life.  Our material life can diminish, but our spiritual life must remain and be elevated. We should place our material existence on the lowest level, and our spiritual existence on the highest level.  According to Buddhism, cultivating the way is to constantly act in accordance with the Way, with the Buddha, and with the Dharma.  It is as the sutra says: the arhat realizes the five divisions: the precepts, meditation, wisdom, liberation, and doctrine. If we can work in this direction, life will be very valuable and meaningful.  In a conventional/relative viewpoint, we should at least practice the Confucian view of “virtue, achievement, and teaching,”  the three imperishable. Life will then be meaningful. Therefore, to truly elevate our life, we must penetrate meditation and our mind ground, then we will truly be at ease.

Transcending Impermanence

Zen is very important to our life, our daily living, and our existence. The sutra says that all sentient beings have their fate in transmigration. A person’s life span is about 60 to 70 years.  At most one can live 100 some years. A common saying is, “The human lifespan is but 70 years.” Even though we may live a long life, own many possessions, have fame and fortune, we eventually must die and will not be able to take anything with us. From this viewpoint, life seems very sad and insignificant.

If we wish to break through the barrier of life, we must penetrate the practice of meditation; through meditation we will realize our true self.  This is the Zen saying: “Enlighten the mind and see the true nature; seeing the true nature one becomes a Buddha.” When we see our true mind and true nature, life will be infinite. This is also the Pure Land saying of “Amituofo”— the Buddha of infinite light and infinite life.  When we are enlightened to the Buddha’s perception, realize our original mind,  this very mind will be as limitless as the vast empty space. The empty space will never cease to be; this mind will also never perish; it is replete with infinite life, brightness, and wisdom.  This is the highest state sought in Buddhism. In the Pure Land School, this is known as the Pure Land of the Dharma body, the Pure Land of calm illumination. In the Buddhist teaching, this is Bodhi, nirvana. If we can understand and realize Bodhi and nirvana, our existence will transcend the limitations of time and space; our life will be infinite.  If we wish to attain this state, we must penetrate the methods of meditation and realization.

If we do not understand this truth, life will be very short and impermanent. We could be very healthy and happy yesterday yet become sick or meet with an accident today. When impermanence arrives, we will return to samsara (the cycle of transmigration) and suffer. We must realize our original mind and nature in order to transcend impermanence, transcend life and death.

What is life and death? Vexation is life and death! When we eradicate the vexations of the mind, that is Bodhi.  Life and death is nirvana. As soon as we realize this mind that is unborn and undying, this is a Pure Land of calm illumination, this is the self nature of the Tathagata; it is the pure Dharma body.  When we realize this truth, and practice diligently toward this direction and are in accord with it, we can be freed from the sufferings of life, old age, sickness, and death in this life. Otherwise we will constantly cycle in the sorrowful sea of life and death and endure endless sufferings.

So how can we transcend life and death and realize this mind that is unborn and undying? We must see our “original face.” When this mind gives rise to one good thought, it is the cause of brightness; we will obtain good retribution in the future. It is like a good dream. When we give rise to a bad thought, it the cause of darkness; we will suffer bad retribution in the future. Therefore good thoughts are good dreams, bad thoughts are bad dreams. Both good and bad dreams are illusive and unreal, like water bubbles that arise and cease; they are not our original face.

Our original face is our true infinite life; it is also our original mind and nature; it is Bodhi and nirvana.  Nirvana means unborn and undying. If no vexations arise in the mind of Shifu teaching the Dharma and the minds of those that are listening to the Dharma, if we dispel vexations when they arise, constantly work and cultivate the Way in this manner, be aware of  this mind that is unborn and undying, we will be able to transcend time and space—this truly is infinite light and infinite life. “Where there is birth there is death; where there is no birth there is no death.” This Dharma body has no beginning and no end; when this mind is enlightened, there is no birth and death.

If we have not penetrated the practice of Zen, we will not be able to delve deeply into or understand the truth of Buddhism.  The sutra says, “Do no evil; do all good; purify your perception; this is the Buddha’s teaching.” This mind should constantly be master of itself, be still and totally clear, both during the day and night, in prosperity and in adversity, in one year, ten years, and at the present time. Working hard this way, is what the Zen school refers to as “maintaining the holy womb.” Understanding this principle is to initiate the Buddha’s perception, reveal the Buddha’s perception, realize the Buddha’s perception, enter into the Buddha’s perception.”  After this realization, the value of our life is immediately uplifted. It is, “A thousand years of darkness is dispelled by the light of a single lamp.”  If we wish to attain this state, we need a long period of practice and introspection—that is Zen. After we understand this, whether it is daily living, existence, or life, we should work hard toward this direction, then life will be meaningful. This is the true reality. ☸︎

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