Must one “see through red dust,” as the saying goes, before one begins to practice Buddhism?Actually, “see through red dust” is not a Buddhist phrase. In this expression, “red dust” (hongchen) refers to the mortal world, so the phrase really means “seeing through the world of mortal beings.” The phrase originated in Chinese literature and describes the phenomenal world as like red dust dancing in the air, implying a scene bustling with life. In his Ode to the Western Capital, the historian Ban Gu of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 BCE–220 CE), writes of “the rumbling sound of the city echoing from the outer city walls, generating hundreds of flowing dust streams; red dust converging from all directions, merging with smoke and clouds over the entire city.” It describes the prosperous western capital of Chang’an, full of people, lots going on, abundant wealth, luxurious and bustling with noise and excitement. Lu Zhaolin’s poem, “Some Old Sentiments about Chang’an” also mentions “Soft branches of the willows and locust trees hang down, brushing against the ground, while red dust clouds the sky on this auspicious day.” In the Song Dynasty (960–1279), Cheng Hao’s poem “Autumn Moon” says, “…with the red dust kept thirty miles away, the white clouds and red leaves float leisurely.” Chapter One of Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber says, “Near the city gate of Chang Men is the center of red dust; it is the place for the most rich, noble, distinguished, and admired people.” So, it is evident that “red dust” implies the bustling scenes of the worldly bureaucracy and wealthy lives of mortal beings.
Since ancient times, to “see through red dust” was used by Chinese literati who were influenced by the Daoist principle of nature and wuwei (literally “non-action”); it was also used by those who were weary of the illusory, extravagant life style, and who yearned for the life in the countryside and woods. Therefore, “seeing through red dust” means to retire from the bustling, ever-changing smoky and cloud-like life, to withdraw into nature, enjoying the freedom of a plain life in the woods and hills.
Buddhism has often been misunderstood in China. Most people relate escaping from urbane reality and retreating into the woods and mountains as being the result of Buddhist belief and practice. In reality, there are no such terms as “red dust” or “seeing through red dust” in Buddhadharma. What we have in Buddhism are the “six dusts” (Sanskrit gunas): sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought, corresponding to the “six roots,” or sense organs, of eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. In addition to the six dusts as the external conditions, the six roots as the internal sensorial organs, we also need the six consciousness functions corresponding to eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind in order for body-mind phenomena to emerge. Since the mind changes with the external environment, the six roots can be influenced by the six dusts to cause one to do good or bad deeds, thus creating karma as it is called in Buddhadharma. It should be noted that one can create bad as well as good karma.
By creating bad karma, one could fall through rebirth into one of the three lower realms: hell, hungry ghosts, and beasts. By creating good karma, one could be reborn as a human, or ascend into a heaven to enjoy karmic retribution as a heavenly being (deva). However, whether falling or ascending, one would still be subject to the bitter cycles of birth and death in the mortal world. In order to be liberated, one must recognize that the six dusts are illusionary, unreal, and changeable.
The Diamond Sutra describes the world of the six dusts as “a dream, a mirage, a bubble, a shadow.” If one can thoroughly understand the illusory and unreal nature of the six dusts, one would achieve liberation and enlightenment. If one’s body and mind remain among the world of the six dusts, without being afflicted or tempted, then one would not generate vexations, and can be considered a liberated being. It is evident then, that the six dusts of Buddhism refer to the environment of our body and mind. A flourishing, wealthy, and honored career certainly belongs to the six dusts, and so is the life of a simple hermit. Therefore, there is a saying in Chan, “The great hermit hides from view in the midst of the city, while the lesser hermit hides in the woods and mountains.” This means that when the mind is occupied and the body is constrained, regardless the environment one lives in, one would not be at ease.
The wilderness and the mountains, roaring wind, torrential rain, ferocious animals, aggressive raptors, poisonous insects, the so-called barren mountains, unruly rivers, rude women and tricky men, can all cause weariness. On the other hand, when the mind is unhindered, whether one lives in a palace or a mansion, in a cave or a thatch hut, it would be all the same.
Generally, when Chinese people say that they have “seen through red dust,” they most likely mean that they have shaved off their hair and become a monastic. It could be because of thwarted aspirations, business failure, broken marriage or family, and one has no self-confidence, or the courage to make a comeback. Having come to a dead end, totally disheartened, one would be content with the temporary ease and comfort inside a Buddhist monastery, dragging out an existence. As the saying goes, “to finish one’s waning life with the green bell and red wooden fish as companions,” referring to Buddhist ritual instruments. This is very negative, pessimistic, and even downright sad! Though there are indeed people like this in Buddhism, it is absolutely not the common way or right way to become a Buddhist and to practice Buddhism.
Entering the gate of Buddhism and becoming a Buddhist is not the same as becoming a monastic. There are two types of Buddhist practitioners: lay people who practice at home (zaijia), and those who leave home (chujia) to be monks or nuns. Only a small proportion of Buddhists become monastics, while the great majority will practice at home. Monastics devote their life to offering their body and mind completely to the Three Jewels and to all sentient beings. To offer to the Three Jewels is to promote Dharma and to prolong Buddha’s wisdom; to offer to all sentient beings is to embrace them and liberate them from suffering. One practices letting go of that which is most difficult to part with, and persevering through that which is most difficult to endure. That is the proper goal for monastics. It is hard to let go of the desire for fame and for wealth, but one must release them. It is hard to persevere through the difficulties encountered when carrying on the Tathagata’s work and relieving the suffering of sentient beings but one must endure them. Therefore, the notion of “seeing through red dust” has no real relevance to the mission of a monastic.
People who leave home to become monastics come from all levels of society. It is not about escaping reality; rather, its aim is to harmonize and purify the human world. In other words, the goal is to transform the world through the liberating power of the Buddha’s Dharma. If studying Buddhism leads one to leave the human world to live in isolation, it would violate Buddha’s intentions. To study and practice Buddhism as a lay person is to live by the five percepts and the ten virtues, and to do one’s best in sharing oneself with family, society, and country. Therefore, having studied Buddhism, lay people should be even more diligent in engaging with society and fulfilling their responsibilities. This is why in Mahayana Buddhism there are the two images of bodhisattvas who leave home (monastics) and bodhisattvas who practice at home (lay people). Monastic bodhisattvas are represented by the simple demeanor of bhikshus and bhikshunis, while lay bodhisattvas are represented by the happy and virtuous bearing of kind and dignified heavenly beings.
So, when we look at the basic meaning of “seeing through red dust” as rather negative and practicing Buddhism as being very positive, we see three types of people. The first are most people: they love this world, feel attached to it, and have difficulty letting go of things. They contend for fame and wealth, are infatuated with food, drink, and sex, living a life of hedonism and dreaming, constantly fretting without truly understanding why they were born, or where they will go after death. When alive they cannot put things down, when dying they have a hard time leaving. Therefore, Buddha called them pitiable.
The second type is negative and world-weary people: they are angry or cynical about the world, or feel unappreciated. Hence, they want to escape the world stage and become recluses. Or they are pessimistic and feel helpless about life, and if they did not take their own life, they would end up escaping reality and living with sadness and sorrow
The third type is those who can take on responsibility and also let things go. They witness hardship and suffering in the world, as well as the danger and frailty of world affairs. They bemoan the state of the world and pity the fate of mankind, and determine to embrace sentient beings, in order to save them from suffering. Even if they have to cross mountains, wade through rivers, or go through fire and hot water, they would do it without any hesitation. This is the archetype of those venerated as sages and saints by later generations.
From the Buddhist perspective, the first type is the basic nature of ordinary people; the second is similar to the basic nature of those inclining towards striving for individual liberation; the third is akin to the basic nature of Mahayana practitioners. However, with the guiding light of Dharma, even though the people of the first group are plain and ordinary, they will gradually acquire wisdom and see the world clearly, decrease vexations, and lessen calamity for the community.
People in the second group, those striving for individual liberation, would at least not be cynical or depressed; they will practice and worship actively, to be sooner liberated from the cycles of birth and death, setting for others a model of redemption through self-motivation and self-reliance.
People of the third type are rooted in the spirit of the Mahayana path. The guidance and cultivation of Dharma endows them with unlimited life and the endless compassionate vows to generate the aspiration of enlightenment, and to walk the bodhisattva path lifetime after lifetime, spreading Dharma among people, and transforming the world into a Buddhist pure land. Their goal is to liberate not only people, but all sentient beings. They are not frustrated by obstacles, nor will they be fanatic out of convenience; they work diligently and quietly to cultivate causes and conditions. They understand that success is not totally dependent on them, but that does not stop them from working tirelessly and improving themselves. This kind of approach to practicing Buddhism has no connection with “seeing through red dust.”