Special Topics

Chan and Spiritual Environmentalism

The Living Environment of Human Beings 

Among the important living environment for human beings are these four: the meterial, the spiritual, the social, and the natural.

1.The material: including clothes, food, shelter, transportation, education, recreation, etc.

2.The spiritual: including anything beyond the physical and material that belongs to the scope of mind and activities of the spirit

3.The social: interpersonal relationships between individuals, family, society, and countries.

4.The natural: the natural resources that people depend on, including the earth and its oceans, mountains, rivers, forests and fields, etc.

Tonight I want to talk mainly about the spiritual environment of Chan practitioners, especially with regard to how it differs from other approaches to spiritual life.

The Spiritual Environment of Chan Practitioners

People struggle with the external environment

Since they live with themselves all the time, ordinary people think they know and understand themselves best. However, very few realize that they live outside rather than inside their mind. Indeed, very few can live within their mind. Since their living needs come from the outside, they misconstrue that vexations and troubles originate from the outside. Therefore, they endlessly pursue the outside environment while also resisting it. Proud people inflate themselves and want to control the environment. And those who lack confidence feel incompetent and insignificant like a fly, a parasite, or a grain of sand in the vast ocean; they too pursue the outside. Modern people often complain about the limited scope of their lives, that their space is too small and time is too short; this is caused by living outside the mind and not being able to unify the body and mind.

Chan practitioners discover the vastness of the inner mind:

Astronomers use high-power telescopes to discover new galaxies one after another, so it appears that we can observe and probe into very distant space. However, the depth and vastness of the inner world of our minds is beyond even this. We often feel stressed and restricted by the environment, there is not enough time and space and one has endless responsibilities, etc. In short, we feel trapped and uncomfortable. It is indeed possible to free oneself from these obstacles through deep cultivation of the inner mind to realize the state of Chan. What do I mean by the infinite vastness of the mind?

1.Realizing one’s infinite potential through aspiration and determination.
Some people will say that would be too hard to do; however, if one truly aspires and is determined, one can reach one’s own infinite potential. This potential includes both wisdom and influence; when both exist, then time and space can also extend infinitely. This is not easily understood by most people but it is attainable.

2. Experiencing infinite space and time in meditative concentration.
The extent of space and duration of time are experienced by the mind. Although there are objective measures of it, time is a subjective perception and there are no set standards. When someone enters meditative concentration, it appears that one has entered the realm of the infinite; for that person, time does not exist. One can be in deep concentration for three days and feel that time no longer exists. When they come out of deep concentration, they will feel like the time flew by in a flash. This sensation indicates that in meditative concentration, time moves very quickly; time can extend infinitely, and after leaving that concentrated state one feels that hours or even days have passed in the blink of an eye. The former was infinitely long, and the latter was infinitely short.

3.Letting go of self-centeredness, discovering the mind’s vastness and infinite tolerance.
When we step out of our narrow self-centeredness, we discover that though the world is small, the mind’s scope embraces the entire cosmos with its people, events, and objects.

4. After enlightenment, experiencing the infinite beyond everything.

5. The mind is so great that it is greater than the universe, and the mind is so deep, it is deeper than the infinite universe.  

It is not easy to reach the enlightened state of a mind that embrace the entire cosmos, and one must make use of various Chan methods. Therefore, this talk is an introduction on how a Chan practitioner develops and protects the mind.


Master Sheng Yen's Dharma Talks, Given at the Taipei Theater, New York, November 7, 1995

Liberated in Stillness and Motion, Chan and Spiritual Environmentalism , p. 53-55.

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