Is practice unnecessary?

In my Zen teachings, I often mention the Zen concept of forgetting the distinction between the saint and the ordinary man. This is a point of departure between Indian Buddhism and Zen. The Indian mind tends to make a clear distinction between the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the mundane, the pure and the defiled. In addition, there are notions of hierarchy and rankings in Indian Buddhism. Early Buddhism and Theravada, for example, differentiate between the four progressive stages of enlightenment, culminating in full enlightenment as an Arahant. In the Platform Sutra, however, the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng, advised the practitioners to “forget about saintliness and ordinariness.” Why so? Because saintliness can become another ego trip. We can get some insights on this by listening to contemporary Zen master, Seung Sahn, who warned against the “hero mind.”

Zen mind is clear mind, always clear mind. Clear mind means, everyday mind is Truth. Cold water is cold. Hot water is hot. Not special. So, somebody thinks, “I want to experience difficult practicing.” Then O.K. But if they always keep difficult practicing, that is making something. If you make something, if you are attached to something, then that thing hinders you, and you cannot get complete freedom. Maybe you will get freedom from some things, but not perfectly complete freedom. Then what is perfectly complete? Don’t hold “I,” “my,” “me.” Then you see; then you hear — everything is perfectly complete. Not special.

An old friend of mine, who is a senior Buddhist, made this comment about the teaching of no distinction. He said, “Such teaching of no distinction may mislead others into thinking that there is no cause and effect. It may discourage people from practicing.” This is a common objection to Zen teachings. Zen masters have often been falsely criticized for teaching moral nihilism or rejecting karma. But we must distinguish between the issue of saintliness and ordinariness and the issue of practice. They are separate issues. Giving up the idea of saintliness does not mean giving up the practice.

Is practice necessary? It depends on what we mean by that term. It also depends on our attitude towards practice. To me, the practice is not about living an ascetic lifestyle in the hope of achieving sainthood or Arahantship. Rather, it is the practice of the Eightfold Path — Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Giving up the notion of saintliness only means to forego the notion that one can become a hero or superhuman, superior to other people. Those enlightened understand that since the “self” is an illusion, there is no actual self who is achieving anything. Hence, Walpola Rahula, author of the classic Buddhist textbook, What the Buddha Taught, said that the realization of Nirvana is not an achievement. Nirvana is Truth. It is Reality. All we need to do is to see it.

Note that in the Eightfold Path, Right View and Right Intention are placed at the top. What is Right View? It includes seeing that the self is an illusion. The Buddhist teaching of Anatta (no-self) is a corollary of the teaching of Dependent Origination. Because this is a interdependent and interconnected universe, there is no independent self to speak of. Not only is Dependent Origination a Buddhist teaching, it is also a scientific fact. None of us exist independently of other things. We are all parts of an integrated “ecosystem.” Can humans exist without the sun, the rivers, the forests, the birds and the insects? The simple answer is “No.” The same principle also operates in the literary world. As an author, I don’t even claim any special originality in my thoughts. There is a TED-talk about how originality is an illusion. Consciously or subconsciously, we all borrow ideas from others. As an author, “I” am just sourcing from the universe. To put it differently, “I” am the universe.

Right Intention is also crucial. Why are we practicing? It is one thing to practice because one wants to be better than other people. But one can be motivated to practice for non-egoistic and compassionate reasons. For example, we may practice Right Livelihood because we see that our consumerist lifestyle is destroying the environment. Thus, we choose what we eat, how we commute and how we consume with an eye towards protecting the environment. Right Speech is common sense. I practice Right Speech and refrain from hate speech which may incite violence. Right Action also makes common sense, knowing that we are all interconnected. In her book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson warned about the harmful effects of widespread use of pesticides. The insects and the humans are interconnected and interdependent. If we spray pesticides indiscrimately, we may very well be poisoning the environment, thus killing ourselves.

Much of Zen teaching is based on the concept of no-self. There is no independent self. But we are all integral parts of a system. It is because we are all living in an interconnected system that whatever we do to others — good or bad — we will reap the consequences of our actions. Once we understand the interconnectedness of all things, we would know the proper thing to do. Zen is not a system of moral nihilism. Once we have Right View, our moral actions becomes natural, not forced. They are based on the right understanding of cause-and-effect. All these are backed by science. They are evidence-based. Our modern practice of the Dharma can now be guided by scientific literacy. We live in an age where science and Dharma complement each other.

Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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