Abide In The Mahayana Mind


“Abiding in the Mahayana mind helps the self; skillfully employing expedient means helps others. By using various expedients, we can teach and guide countless sentient beings to the Mahayana mind.”

Expedient Means and Ultimate Method

Today I will discuss the importance of “abiding in the Mahayana mind while skillfully employing expedient means.” We have advanced from an agricultural society to the space age. Since every person’s perception, values, and lifestyle differ, it is not easy to teach and practice Buddhism in the present society. An ancient master said: “the Buddha taught countless Dharmas to cure countless afflictions of the mind.” This underlines the importance of skillfully employing expedient means to guiding different kinds of people to enlightenment.

Without expedient means, it will be difficult for the Dharma to prosper and be understood in today’s world. On the other hand, if expedient means are not skillfully employed, they may lead to harm instead of benefits.

Also, if only expedients and no ultimate methods are provided, the practitioners will not obtain the true benefits of the Dharma. Ultimate methods lead one to transcend all suffering and attain the perfect enlightenment of a buddha; to realize this goal, one must abide in the Mahayana mind. Abiding in the Mahayana mind benefits oneself; skillfully employing expedient means benefits others. By using various expedients, we can teach and guide countless sentient beings to the Mahayana mind.

Whether we practice gradual cultivation or sudden enlightenment, the ultimate goal is to abide in the Mahayana mind, in this present mind. With sudden enlightenment, one directly realizes this very mind. An ancient master said: “A room in darkness for a thousand years is lit just by a single lamp.” This lamp is your very mind that is listening to the Dharma right now. Enlightened, the afflicted mind becomes the bodhi mind and mundane existence becomes nirvana.

A sutra says: “One is the inherent nature we return to; many are the expedient gateways that bring us there.” With gradual cultivation, we practice the many Buddhist paths—the three core disciplines of enlightenment (precepts, samadhi, and wisdom); the six paramitas (charity, morality, tolerance, diligence, meditation, and wisdom); or any of the 84,000 Dharma gates or methods—but their ultimate goal is still the revelation of our inherent nature, which is simply this present mind that is listening to the Dharma now. And where is this present mind? It is our pure awareness.

Levels of Enlightenment

From a deluded mind to the ultimately enlightened mind, there are different levels of enlightenment.

Whether deluded or enlightened, every being inherently has pure awareness, known as “fundamental bodhi,” or “fundamental awareness.” It is that which knows and perceives. It is the very mind that is hearing these words at this moment.

Mundane beings give in to ignorance, affliction, greed, and anger, committing killing, robbery, and adultery. Their lives are thus filled with darkness, emptiness, conflict, violence, and deception. Therefore, they are “unenlightened” because they have not discovered their bodhi mind yet.

When we listen to and study the Dharma, we know that as mundane beings, we suffer from birth, aging, illness, and death. We also learn that the way to free ourselves is to transform our thoughts, then we can turn this ocean of suffering into a pure land, transcend mundane existence, and attain bodhi and nirvana. “Water can carry a boat but also sink a boat”—it is all in this present mind. This understanding is the beginning of enlightenment, or “initial bodhi.”

After arriving at “initial bodhi,” we continue to practice diligently. Whether by the method of sudden enlightenment or gradual cultivation, we finally eradicate the six fundamental afflictions of the mind: greed, anger, ignorance, pride, doubt, and false views. This level is called “sambodhi” (i.e., correct awakening or enlightenment), the state of the Buddhist saints.

After attaining “sambodhi,” we must continue the path of Mahayana: bring forth a mind of great compassion, practice the bodhisattva way, pursue the noble buddha path and liberate all sentient beings. Furthermore, we “cultivate non-cultivation” and “manifest the mind of no-mind,” eventually realizing the principle of middle way reality. This is the stage of true bodhisattvas. Now we begin to erode our “original ignorance,” the most subtle and deeply rooted delusions. When we eradicate a part of this ignorance, we reveal a part of our Dharmakaya, the true body of a buddha, which is neither physical nor non-physical. This process is called “progressive realization of bodhi.”

Progressing this way, we finally arrive at “virtually perfect bodhi.” At this stage, all that remains is the last vestige of the original ignorance, which we must shatter by entering into “vajra samadhi,” then buddhahood is complete. This is known as “unsurpassed complete enlightenment” or “ultimate bodhi”—which is the realization of our pure awareness.

“Pure awareness” is the bodhi mind: in the eyes it is the seeing; in the ears it is the hearing; in the nose it is the smelling; in the mouth it is the speaking; in the hands it is the grasping; in the feet it is the moving; in the faculty of consciousness, it is the thinking of the past, present and future. It is the mind that knows, and it is in our six senses. Everyone has it, but if we do not make serious efforts, our mind can never settle and attain peace.

Purity and Defilement Arise from the Mind, Not from External Objects

There once was a Chan master named Miaofeng who traveled far and wide on foot to seek the Dharma. He was spending the night at an inn and suddenly woke up with a fever. In the darkness, he groped his way to the kitchen to drink some water. The next day, he recollected the sweetness of the water and went back to get some more. What he found was actually dirty and smelly water used for washing feet. He immediately vomited, but at that very moment he was enlightened to the nature of the mind: “When I drank it, it tasted very sweet; now I smell it, it smells very fetid. Purity and defilement arise from the mind, not from external objects.” The water had not changed; the difference was all due to his discriminating mind, the mind of attachment.

After we have attained enlightenment, we still need “gradual cultivation” to attain the Way. The Way is not something that we create. Whatever is created will perish; it does not last. To cultivate the Way is simply to eliminate delusive thoughts, afflictions, ignorance, and karmic habits and tendencies, then the inherent nature of our mind will naturally manifest. This is the Way.

However, to maintain this mind in a state of clarity and understanding is not a simple task and requires great determination. Try this meditation: for three minutes, do not think of anything about the past, present, or future; do not become drowsy; be the master of your mind. If you can achieve this, you are like a buddha for three minutes. If you can maintain this for ten minutes, you are like a buddha for ten minutes. This pure and lucid mind is our true self.

To abide constantly in this pure mind is to “abide in the Mahayana mind.” But in our present society, most people may not easily understand or accept these teachings. Therefore, we also need to “skillfully employ expedient means.” Without different expedient means to help and guide sentient beings to enlightenment, most people have no way of attaining buddhahood.

Five Directions of Spreading Buddhism

At Chung Tai, we set forth five expedient means in bringing Buddhism to the multitude:

    1. Buddhism in Academia: Buddhism essentially is a body of profound wisdom. We can use modern methods of research to investigate Buddhism so that the study can be more systematic and accessible. This expedient means helps the academic world understand the Dharma better.
    2. Buddhism in Education: Chung Tai Chan Monastery has established a Buddhist Institute to educate the sangha, and over 100 meditation centers worldwide to teach the Dharma and meditation to a wide spectrum of people. Furthermore, it has founded the Pu Tai elementary, middle, and high schools where the Buddhist principles are applied and put into practice in education.
    3. Buddhism in Science: the Buddha’s approach to understanding reality and human suffering is based on empirical observations, which is in congruence with scientific methods. The principle of causality is fundamental in both Buddhism and science. In addition, we use modern technology, such as computers and the internet, to spread the message of Buddhism.
    4. Buddhism in Art: Throughout the ages, Buddhism has inspired prominent and outstanding artistic creations. The architecture and interior of Chung Tai Chan Monastery embody Buddhist art of a very high order, unifying symbolism from ancient India and China with modern engineering and technology.
    5. Buddhism in Daily Living: Buddhism is practical and anyone can lead a happier life by following its principles. For example, the Four Tenets of Chung Tai are guidelines for practicing Buddhist teachings in daily life: to our elders be respectful to our juniors be kind, with all humanity be harmonious, and in all endeavors be true.

In summary, the heart of Mahayana Buddhism is the aspiration to benefit others as well as the self. If we can abide in the Mahayana mind, skillfully employ expedient means, make diligent effort and persist in these directions, we will surely bring happiness to ourselves and to others.