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Transforming Yourself and the World: Buddhist Meditation in Practice

Dharma Master Hsin Tao

What is Zen-Meditation? Our practice of Zen is based on two methods:

1. Calming (or stopping) Samatha. Here we use the concentration of our thoughts to settle our body and mind externally and internally. Concentration helps to keep our mind free from outside disturbances, so that we can return to our original self.

2. Contemplation (Vipassyana). This is work based on insight and analysis. We make a very detailed analysis of our own self, of the world outside of us, and of the relationship and the interactions between the two of them. This analysis again is divided into two kinds: analysis of the mind, and analysis of the material world. If we carry through with this analysis until the very end, we will understand the true form of all things, as well as our relationship to them. We will also understand everything about ourselves, and then we will be able to find liberation in the midst of all things.

In our study of Zen-Buddhism, we usually speak about 4 steps: Trust, Understanding, Practice and Realization. First, we have to trust that the practice of Zen is good for us. This trust makes us interested in learning everything about it. Next, we have to understand the method of Zen practice, and then we have to find out if the whole teaching makes sense to us, or if there are still some areas that we need to study more systematically in order to get a more complete understanding. Next comes the part of practice. After having done our study and arrived at some understanding of what Buddhism and Zen are all about, we need to start putting it into practice in our daily life. This is the only way for us to experience and understand how Zen helps and benefits us in our daily life.

I remember that, when I first started my practice after becoming a monk, I secluded myself from other people and went to a very isolated old pagoda to practice. I wanted to penetrate the very core and essence of Zen. In the old pagoda, it was eerily quiet. The whole day long, one could not hear any other person’s voice, and after a few days, this overwhelming quietness made me feel uneasy and restless. Especially at night, the whole world seemed so desolated and deserted that it was really scary. At that time, I only had one thought left in my mind- I absolutely wanted to be together with other people, I wanted to talk to them.

My mind was constantly troubled by contradictory and conflicting thoughts. But I knew that I had to face my loneliness if I had to overcome my troubles and fears, and that the only way to make some progress in my practice was to go on and not give up. And so I was constantly battling myself with my self-centered thoughts, my longings, likes and dislikes, my wrong ideas. But one evening, after finishing one round of sitting, I came to feel a deep inner peace, and all those feeling of fear and even terror of the night were completely gone. And then I understood: If my mind, my heart is completely free from attachment, then there is absolutely nothing left that could produce fear and terror. This state is the unconditional and unlimited freedom of the spirit.

For me, the practice of Zen means to find a way leading to an authentic life, and to rediscover the true nature of our mind, its original brightness. The true nature of our mind is eternal and luminous. It is unchanging, all-pervasive and all-present. In the light of awakening we finally find the place of true peace. In the moment in which we awaken to the true nature of our heart and mind we feel unlimited love and compassion for all beings. This is my personal experience of Zen.

As my practice continued, I also gained insight into the problem of life and death, in the teaching of impermanence and so on. As my insight grew, I could hear a voice within myself which said: you have to help others through the teaching of Buddhism. Share everything that you have experienced and realized through your Zen-practice with others. And so I decided to return to the world and to make daily life among others my place for continued practice.

And even though I changed my way of life – from practice in total seclusion to practice in the midst of the world, that what has not changed at all is the importance that daily Zen practice has for me. For example, when we built the Museum of World Religions, I never forgot my daily practice of seated meditation, even though our work for the Museum was never ending and so challenging. No matter whether it was a bit longer or shorter, I sat at least once every day to let my thoughts come to rest and clarity, and to be able to face the new challenges.

For me, the practice of Zen means to let my spiritual nature shine more brightly. Our spiritual nature is the nature of our heart and mind; our spiritual nature is eternal and unchanging. Our body is only a fleeting ghost – an existence (or embodiment) of time and space. Our body is only a temporal expression of our spiritual nature, of mind. Seen from the perspective of the body, we distinguish between our last life, our present life and our future life, but seen from the perspective of the spirit, there is no division into different times. The spirit continues uninterruptedly from life to life, generation to generation.

The most important thing in the study of Buddhism is the transformation of our notion of who we are, of what I am. But how can I transform this notion, this idea of myself? This happens through meditation, through the contemplation and illumination of our spiritual nature. When we earnestly search for our spiritual nature which is eternal, then we can understand what is not eternal – namely the constant changes, the impermanence of this world. Then we can understand that all things and phenomena in this world are like a dream, an illusion or like bubbles, all of which exist some fleeting moments in time and then disappear. This understanding will help us to control our inner selves, to not let ourselves get confused by external things and lost in the maze of the world of phenomena. If we really want to transform our way of looking at things and at ourselves, if we don’t want to get lost in the illusory world of outer appearances, then we have to practice in order constantly be in touch with our spiritual nature.

We often take our body to be the “I”, and then we get confused by this thing that we call “I”. Meditation (literally: looking and illuminating) means that we want to get rid of this “I”. This thing called I can be likened to snow- and wisdom (prajna) is like the sun. When the wisdom sun rises, the snow will melt, and that which has been covered by the snow is our spiritual nature. Practice therefore means to bring out our spiritual nature through meditation (literally to contemplate and illuminate out). When we meditate like that, we will discover in the end that what is, is not, and that which is not, is. This means that our spiritual nature which belongs to Nothingness (wu), has appeared in the world of existence. When we understand this truth, our life will be eternal, and the love that comes with this truth, is real love, not a fabricated kind of love or a fake love – like the love of the Ego-Self.

When we look at society, it is just the same – we often get lost in the fast pace, the constant changes of the external world of appearances, we get lost in relationships, in the world of human relationships, we get lost in our pursuits of money and power, we get lost in our own desires. As long as we are lost in those external things, we cannot see our spiritual nature, or claim that we honestly and whole heartedly want to love others. In our confused societies, human relations become a mere power play. The one who has the greatest power can bring everything under his or her control. We have to practice constantly, so that we can see our true spiritual nature, that we can let our spiritual nature enlighten our heart and mind, and that we can look through the divisive and confused features of society.

The practice of meditation not only let’s us see through the confusion and divisiveness in society, it also helps us to actively engage with other religions in dialogue and cooperation. Real love comes forth from our spiritual nature, and real love makes us want to overcome all our differences between us. It keeps us from the competitive attitude of either you or I, of wanting to compare whose God is stronger, whose religion is better, whose truth is more true. Instead, it makes us turn towards all living beings, it makes us face the suffering that living beings have to undergo, and to think about ways to address and alleviate this suffering together.

We Buddhists say that our spiritual nature lets us “enlighten our mind, and see our true nature.” It lets us know how to face all the phenomena in society; it lets us take a very positive and engaged attitude towards society, an attitude that is concerned about its survival. Our spiritual nature also lets us engage with other religions on the basis of honesty and real love. Guided by the spirit, we can think together about how to address the many problems of our societies, and how to live together with others in peace and harmony.

Through meditation we come to know that we and all living beings form one living body – They are me and I am they. There is no way for us to separate from this common living body or to split it up. And there for we will very naturally respond to every being, every happening, everything, with a compassionate and loving heart. This is an experience that grows very naturally out of Zen-practice. We can of course use words to describe it, but if we want to really know and experience this, we have to do the practice, we have to meditate.

We all live in this world together. So, if we have not learned to constantly purify our own selfish feelings, then we will not succeed in living or working together in peace and harmony. We can say that the practice of Zen helps us to clarify and purify our feelings. Purified feelings are the best basis from which we can live our daily life in this world. This is what Buddhism calls “unconditional love” and “the embodiment of great compassion.” I want to give you the time when I was practicing meditation in deserted graveyards as an example. What everybody fears and hates most are roaming spirits and ghosts.

In the course of my own practice I developed a deeper sense of compassion, and with that I understood that these spirits a suffering beings in the circle of life, death and rebirth. And so a thought took hold of me – I wanted to help them. This so completely transformed my originally hostile attitude, my feelings of not being able to stand them, that we became friends and got along peacefully.

If this is possible with spirits, how much more so with living human beings. If all of us can practice Zen, and through this practice, can manage to completely dissolve all blockages and hindrances of our heart and mind; if we can find inner peace of mind, if we can see through all forms of life in this universe, if we can realize that we all together form one single body, then we can let go of our hang-ups and live together in peace. In my case, I was led by the teaching of Buddhism and the experience of Zen to build the Museum of World Religions. This, I hope, will be one contribution to a loving and peaceful global family which comes straight from the heart.