33. Generating Bodhi Mind – Shurangama Sutra – By Master Shen Yen

Master Shen Yen
  1. Generating Bodhi Mind

January 3, 1993

Thereat the World Honored One said to the great Bodhisattvas and great Arhats in the Assembly, “I want to ask you, Bodhisattvas and Arhats, who are born from Buddhadharma and have reached the state beyond study, this question: when you developed your minds to awaken to the eighteen fields of sense, which one did you regard as the best means of perfection and by what methods did you enter the state of samadhi?”

In this section of the Shurangama Sutra, in response to the Buddha’s question, twenty-five great Bodhisattvas describe the methods they used to enter into samadhi. The methods of practice which lead to samadhi are called “Dharma doors.” The Buddha’s question addressed the great Bodhisattvas and Arhats. Arhats are Buddhist saints of the Hinayana tradition. Why does the Buddha question them in a sutra which teaches the Mahayana Path?

The disciples of the Buddha who were present when he delivered the Shurangama Sutra appear as Hinayana practitioners, yet they have generated the Mahayana Bodhisattva mind. What do we mean by “appear as Hinayana practitioners?” Traditionally, Mahayana literature uses the term “Hinayana practitioner” dialectically to mean a Buddhist who pursues his own salvation, rather than the salvation of all sentient beings. Such a person wishes to go beyond the five desires related to the senses, beyond vexations, and beyond the cycle of birth and death of samsara. He dedicates himself to leaving behind the world and worldly activity. In contrast, a Mahayana Bodhisattva practices for the benefit of all beings. He does not leave behind the five desires nor is he attached to them. He lives in the world, but is not attached to it.

What about ordinary sentient beings? We live in the world, we are attached to the world, and we are motivated by the five desires. In this sense, we are neither Hinayana practitioners, nor are we Bodhisattvas. A Hinayana practitioner does not necessarily have to be a bhikshu, a left-home person, a monk. A beginning Hinayana practitioner may be a lay person.

However, at the fourth and final fruition the stage of the Arhat, a Hinayana practitioner is always a bhikshu. A Mahayana Bodhisattva may be a left-home person or a lay person at any point on the path, and may seem indistinguishable from an ordinary sentient being. There is a common misunderstanding that a left-home person is always a Hinayana practitioner, because he has left behind the five desires and renounced the life of an ordinary person. This is a mistake. People sometimes say to me “Shifu, you are a monk so you are only a Hinayana practitioner. We are Bodhisattvas because we live in the midst of the five desires, but we are not motivated by them.” If such self-proclaimed Bodhisattvas practice for their own benefit, or if, when a question of self interest arises, they are motivated by selfish considerations, they are not Bodhisattvas or Hinayana practitioners.

The Buddha uses the term, “great Arhats.” If there are great Arhats, does that mean there are small Arhats? By definition, Arhats are “without outflows,” meaning their actions do not create new karma. If great Arhats are without outflows, are there small Arhats who are with outflows? “Arhat” means “worthy of making offerings to.” An Arhat has attained liberation from samsara and desire, and thus is worthy of receiving offerings. As it is used here, a “great Arhat” has attained liberation and has simultaneously generated the Bodhisattva mind, or Bodhi Mind. He or she vows to help all sentient beings. Bodhi Mind is the altruistic mind of enlightenment. A great Arhat has the mental disposition of a Bodhisattva. Of course, as an Arhat who practices the Hinayana tradition, must be a left-home person.

An Arhat is always without outflows, so his merit and virtue will never again decrease. How can merit and virtue decrease? Imagine a balloon with a puncture or a bucket with a hole. Whatever is inside will eventually leak out. The state of mind produces vexations is like the hole. If there is no hole there will be no outflows or leaks. An Arhat has perfected his practice to the point where his merit and virtue will never again decrease. Ordinary people sometimes help sentient beings, and sometimes harm them. A crude example would be that you see somebody having difficulty crossing a street and you help him, but later you knock him down on the sidewalk. Do you recognize such behavior? We act in this manner as long as we are subject to the five desires, and harming others will cause our merits and virtue to leak away.

In Taiwan a student sought the help of a teacher in writing his dissertation. The teacher provided guidance and the student was very grateful. However, after the student graduated, the teacher claimed that he had written the dissertation for the student. When the student heard this, he was hurt and angry. First, the teacher helped him then he hurt him. The teacher

destroyed a friendship. This is an act which has outflows.

The Buddha also addresses the great Bodhisattvas. People who have only recently generated the Bodhi Mind are usually not on the same level as great Bodhisattvas. Sometimes we call them ordinary sentient being Bodhisattvas, as distinct from saint Bodhisattvas. The attainment of a saint Bodhisattva or great Bodhisattva never regresses, so a great Bodhisattva is also called a “non-regressing Bodhisattva.” A Bodhisattva who is close to Buddhahood is also called a great Bodhisattva. In Chinese we do in fact sometimes use the term “small Bodhisattva,” but we use it to refer to children who go to temple. Maybe they, too, will grow up to be great Bodhisattvas.

When the Buddha cites those, who were born from Buddhadharma, he refers to the fact that, although our physical life comes from our parents, our wisdom comes from Buddhadharma. Where does Buddhadharma come from? It comes from the Buddha. We say that wisdom is born from Buddha’s mouth, emanates from the Dharma, and attains part of the Buddhadharma. “Wisdom is born from Buddha’s mouth” because our wisdom originates from the Dharma the Buddha spoke. It “emanates from the Dharma,” because, if we follow the Dharma vexations decrease and wisdom arises. When wisdom manifests, we attain a part of the Buddhadharma. If we attain the totality of Buddhadharma, we attain Buddhahood.

We have listened to Buddhadharma; we have already taken the embryo of Buddhadharma into our being. The Dharma has rooted in our minds and it will continue to grow if we continue to practice. Eventually, we are able to use the Dharma to resolve the vexations we encounter in everyday life. When we do that, our wisdom emanates from the Dharma, and we act from the Dharma.

Buddha says that Bodhisattvas and Arhats have reached the state beyond study. Leading to this attainment, there are three kinds of study towards no outflows. The first cultivates ethics, or the precepts; the second cultivates samadhi, or stillness of mind; and the third cultivates wisdom. If we cultivate the precepts, samadhi and wisdom, they will lead us toward the state of no outflows. Beyond this point there is no need for study.

People often think that practice is meditation, and that meditation leads to enlightenment. But what does enlightenment mean? It means freedom from vexations and the realization of wisdom. Seeking this end, people employ methods such as counting breaths or the contemplation of impurity. This is cultivation of samadhi, but by itself it is not enough. Conduct in daily life is extremely important. Actions, verbal expression, and the thoughts and feelings in the mind, constitute what Buddhists call the three kinds of actions or the three kinds of karma. If actions of body, speech and mind accord with Buddhist guidelines, then the precepts are followed. Contrary actions break the precepts. Act in this way and the cultivation of samadhi will not be successful and wisdom will not manifest. Only proper actions will accord with the precepts, cultivate samadhi, and manifest wisdom. When wisdom manifests and vexations disappear, you will no longer want to commit acts that cause vexation to yourself or others. There is no more need for study.

If you truly understand this, then you have reached the state beyond the need for study. Most probably you understand the words, but not the true meaning of “beyond study.” To guide us in this pursuit, Shakyamuni Buddha asked the great Bodhisattvas and Arhats to describe the methods they used to reach the point of no outflow and the state beyond study.

Buddha asked the Bodhisattvas and Arhats, “when you developed your minds to awaken to the eighteen fields of sense, which one did you regard as the best means of perfection and by what methods did you enter the state of samadhi?”

The eighteen fields of sense are what we have already referred to as the eighteen realms. They encompass the six sense organs, plus the six sense objects, plus the six consciousnesses. These eighteen fields of sense constitute the physical and mental self. Awakening to the eighteen fields of sense means that the great Bodhisattvas and Arhats were enlightened to the emptiness of the fields of sense, and to the emptiness of the physical and mental aggregates we call the self.

The Shurangama Sutra does not use the term samadhi in the ordinary sense of complete meditative absorption. Here it refers to the Shurangama Samadhi, the ultimate state of enlightenment. Buddha asked the twenty-five great practitioners who were present, “What was the nature of your practice such that you attained non-obstruction with respect to the eighteen fields and thereby reached Great Enlightenment?”

“When you developed your minds…” refers to when they initially generated Bodhi Mind – the aspiration to attain Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. If you think only of your own salvation, that is not generating the mind. Second, generating the Bodhi Mind refers to the methods of practice used to cultivate Bodhi Mind. It is not advisable to change your method of practice often. Otherwise you allow the initial generation of mind to slip away too often.

In the Chan tradition the first method a practitioner uses is called “the original practice,” or “the original practice huatou,” and it is best to persist with this method. We should strive to enter deeply into practice through this method. We should strive to enter deeply into practice through this Dharma door. When we help other sentient beings, it is appropriate to use innumerable methods, but in our won practice, we should adhere to one. Entering deeply into the practice through the original method, we may help others with a variety of methods. This is called “completion without obstruction.”

The generation of Bodhi Mind may at first be pleasant, but it is difficult to sustain. That is why Amitabha Buddha made forty-eight great vows when he first generated Bodhi Mind.

And when Samantabhadra Bodhisattva generated Bodhi Mind he made ten great vows. Although it is common for practitioners to have virtuous thoughts and aspirations when they generate Bodhi Mind, as they encounter difficulties on the Path these often slip away. Some people say, “Shifu, becoming a Bodhisattva is difficult. Let me practice for my own good first. Let’s discuss becoming a Bodhisattva later.”

Other people find practice altogether too difficult, and say, “Shifu, I think there is no hope for me in this lifetime. Next lifetime I’ll practice.” These practitioners are regressing from their initial generation of Bodhi Mind. Such thoughts require you to rededicate yourself to your goal.

During retreats people are often moved and quite grateful for what they have experienced. They express these feelings in the discussion at the end of the retreat. Someone once said, “I vow to be your disciple, lifetime after lifetime, until I attain Buddhahood.” That is a great vow. I said to him, “If you are still around when I come back for my next life, you will be old and I’ll be a young monk. Will you still take me as your Shifu?” He answered, “It doesn’t matter whether a teacher is old or young. I will still follow you.” However, shortly after the retreat he heard of a master reputed to enlighten his disciples in a matter of days, and went off to follow that master.

What happened to his vow to follow me until he attained Buddhahood? When he made that vow, it did not indicate genuine generation of Bodhi Mind. He made the vow only because of his emotional state at the end of the retreat. When you generate Bodhi Mind, be cautious, and do not expect too much of yourself right away, or you will become discouraged. Do not say that you will follow me, say that you will follow the Buddha, or vow that you will persevere in your method of practice until you attain Buddhahood. These are great vows indeed.

I stated that it is not good to change your method often. It is also inadvisable to have several masters at once. Many intelligent people come to me when they already have other masters, and I ask them, “Why are you here?” They often feel that it can’t hurt to have one more master, no matter how many they have already. They think they can get a little from each, and end up with a lot. It’s as if each master gave them a dollar, so that if they have ten masters, they end up with ten dollars.

Studying with a master is more like going to a physician. If you go to many physicians for the same condition and each gives you a different prescription, the combination of drugs may be ineffective or even harmful, although one prescription alone may provide the cure.

Today I have discussed three important ideas. The first is the state of being without outflows, when merit and virtue no longer outflow, or “leak.” To reach the state without outflows we must practice the three studies: precepts, samadhi, and wisdom. If we act properly, we accumulate merit and virtue, but we can easily undermine our efforts by doing what we should not do.

The second idea is “born from the Dharma.” Our wisdom derives from, is born of, the Dharma spoken by the Buddha. We use the Dharma to free ourselves of vexations and in this way our wisdom will manifest.

The generation of mind is the third important thing I covered. This always refers to the generation of Bodhi Mind, the mind of the Mahayana Bodhisattva. To generate and cultivate Bodhi Mind, we should adhere to one method of practice. When our effort slackens, and we regress on the Path, we must invoke the initial generation of Bodhi Mind, persevere, and ultimately succeed.