Practice is like tuning a Harp

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Attained great liberation?

There are some people who practice what we call peaceful Chan. Those who practice this way give the impression of being very consistent, practicing all day every day. But such a person might practice for a while then think, “Oh! It’s about lunchtime.” After lunch they will rest for a while and then resume practicing. Suddenly, “It’s about time to do my laundry.” After the laundry they’re a bit fatigued so they take a break. Soon it’s time for dinner. After dinner, their stomach is a bit full so they have to wait a while before continuing to practice for a little while. Before you know it, it’s time for bed. Some practitioners will continue doing this day after day for years and people will regard them as great practitioners. But, in fact, they may still be the same as when they began to practice. If they seem stable and free of vexations, it is because they do very little, perform no serious work, and avoid involvements or contacts.

I once met a monk who told me, “While I was practicing I attained great liberation.” I then asked, “At that time, is it correct that you never had worries about food or clothing, never had to deal with quarrelsome people?” This person answered, “Of course, I was practicing. People gave offerings of food and clothing and nobody ever came to quarrel with me.” I then asked, “And now?” He told me he now had many vexations because the environment was different. I said to him, “If you attained great liberation then, why aren’t you free from vexations now?” Actually, people like this will never become enlightened, never be a Chan master. They are just wasting their time, wasting their lives, wasting food.

Practice of no use

There is yet another type who will work very hard for one or two days as if their life depended on it. But after a couple of days they get very tired, have a headache, their legs and back are sore and their whole body is hurting so that they can’t even sit up. At this time they will say, “Maybe enlightenment isn’t so easy, I’d better take a good rest. After my strength is built up I’ll come back and practice.” After their body has recovered and they feel well rested they will come back, in the same manner. However, there is really no difference between these two types of people. Again, people like these are often admired as great practitioners who throw their whole lives into the practice, but actually this kind of practice is of no use.

Practice is like the tuning of a harp

There is a third type who well remembers the Buddha’s words that practice should be like the tuning of a harp. Just as strings of a harp should not be too loose or too tight, so one’s practice should not be too loose or too tense. Some people take this to mean that one should practice very hard until tired, rest for a while, and then continue practicing. They believe they are practicing proper meditation. However, this is still useless. It’s like climbing up a rope; you climb very energetically for a while, but then you feel tired and take a rest, allowing yourself to slide back to where you started. You can’t make progress that way. This third type of person needs the guidance of a good master to tell him or her them when to practice energetically, and when to take a rest, without sliding backwards.

For example, a person meditating who hears the sound of bell may think, “Ah! Time is up. I should be tired now so I think I’ll stretch my legs.” At these moments, this person needs a good master to use very strong, even fierce, methods to make that person realize that though capable, their laziness is rendering their practice useless. People tend to easily forgive themselves, but with the strenuous prompting of a master, such a person may develop an “angry determination” in which there is a deep disgust for one’s present state, and a strong determination to practice diligently.

Great doubt sensation

It is very important for the master to recognize whether a practitioner’s mind is ready to generate the “great doubt sensation.” The master may even tell the disciple that they should rest before continuing. However, once it is clear that the student has aroused the great doubt sensation, the master will be like someone driving a herd of wild animals, and there can be no stopping. Unless the student has a prior medical condition, once the great doubt has been generated, their body can come to no harm from working very hard. This is because at this stage this person is in complete harmony with the universe. The power of the entire universe is available to the individual. So, at this point the master must push the practitioner to keep going and going in the hope that a world-shattering explosion will take place. If not, perhaps a smaller explosion. Of course, for those with the sharpest karmic roots, like the Sixth Patriarch Huineng, none of this is necessary. Such a person will not need the guidance of a master. But for most people having a good master is needed to persevere and attain some good results.

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From Chan Newsletter No. 25, November, 1982

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