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One day the Fifth Patriarch Hongren summoned all his disciples to an assembly, and said, “I say to all of you: the birth and death of people in this world is a grave matter. Nevertheless you, disciples, make offerings all day long, seeking only the field of blessings (punyaksetra) but not liberation from the sea of suffering of birth and death. If you are all deluded to your own self-natures, then how can the gateway of blessings save you? All of you return to your rooms and examine yourselves carefully. Those with wisdom should compose a verse on prajña wisdom, your original self-nature, and bring it to me. After looking over your verses, if there is someone who has awakened to the cardinal meaning, I will transmit the kasaya robe and the dharma to him and make him the Sixth Patriarch. Do it quickly!”
The Fifth Patriarch Hongren called together all his 700 disciples one day and admonished them for only seeking the field of blessings and not an escape from the sea of suffering of birth and death, when it is gravest matter in this world. (Though, of course, blessings are not such a bad thing, either!)
Don’t we refer to the Buddha as the ‘Lord of Two-Footed Creatures’ (Yangjok chon 兩足尊), who is fully endowed with both blessings and wisdom. The Buddha’s blessings are the pure and righteous blessings that not only do no harm to anyone, whether oneself or others, but also help everyone. The methods by which the Buddha cultivated and accumulated his blessings were also pure and clear, without any contradictions; they formed a great field of blessings that would not be reduced even if it were distributed to all sentient beings.
The Fifth Patriarch admonishes his disciples for seeking only blessings but not trying to escape from the sea of suffering of birth and death. We ordinarily understand birth and death as only living and dying, but the arising and ceasing of our thoughts as well also entail birth and death. Hence, dying when one’s lifespan has come to an end and then being reborn is not the only form of birth and death; the arising and ceasing of thoughts themselves are also birth and death.
However, if thoughts that arise and cease are referred to as birth and death, why do we refer only to our own thoughts as ‘birth and death’ but not those of the sages? Our thoughts arise from our discriminative mind, which distinguishes being from nonbeing, you from me, and so forth; thus they are said to involve birth and death. Sages, on the other hand, have transcended all discriminative thoughts, so their minds operate clearly and purely; thus, their thoughts are not considered to involve birth and death. That is the difference.
To explain it a little further, because the sages have transcended all discriminative thoughts, such as being and nonbeing, good and bad, etc., they are not attached to, or controlled by, their circumstances. Responding happily when we experience good events and angrily when we experience the bad is the evidence that we are attached to, and controlled by, our circumstances. By producing dualistic thoughts with our discriminative mind, our thoughts arise and cease, then cease and arise again. Thereby, we criticize ourselves and live our lives by being attached to, and controlled by, our circumstances.
Thus, the only difference between sentient beings and sages is that the former are attached to their thoughts, while the latter are not. Other than that, there are no great differences between the two.
There are those among us who claim to have attained correct understanding after having diligently engaged in cultivation practice, and exclaim, “I’ve got it!” Only if such persons have extinguished their minds that are subject to birth and death can their understanding be validated as real and can any attainment be claimed. However, while their minds subject to birth and death are still present and their understanding is merely the result of various types of speculative knowledge, they may boast to others that they have attained correct understanding, but their speech and actions will never come into conformity with one another. This is an unrepentable offense.
Hence, a hwadu is called ‘a sword that cuts a wind-blown hair’ (ch’uimogom 吹毛劍), which is a sword that cuts off the mind of birth and death. Those who do ch’amson are not the only ones who hold a hwadu. If, as the Diamond Sutra mentions, one performs bodhisattva service without maintaining any of the four conceptions of ‘I,’ ‘person,’ ‘sentient beings,’ or ‘lifespan,’ then his actions will be the same as holding a hwadu that instantly cuts off the mind of birth and death; If one conducts oneself without holding any of these conceptions, then every action becomes a hwadu. Even when you are reciting the Buddha’s name, if you arrive at the state of “when your recitation reaches its climax, that is the locus of no thought,” then the mind of birth and death will be cut off. In common parlance, this state is described as transcending the subject-object dichotomy. In Buddhism, if one transcends the subject-object view through some sort of cultivation practice, then this is called the ultimate realm.
Once a person enters the world of awakening, the world of reciting the Buddha name or the world of ch’amson do not exist separately, but are one. Hence, we must not understand the mind of birth and death as referring only to our own births and deaths. Our thoughts that arise and cease, then cease and arise again, are the minds of birth and death. Hence, transcending this mind of birth and death is called ‘seeing the nature,’ liberation, and nirvana.
“You seek only the field of blessings (punyaksetra) but not liberation from the sea of suffering of birth and death. If you are all deluded to your own self-natures, then how can the gateway of blessings save you? All of you return to your rooms and examine yourselves carefully. Those with wisdom should compose a verse on prajña wisdom, your original self-nature, and bring it to me. After looking over your verses, if there is someone who has awakened to the cardinal meaning, I will transmit the kasaya robe and the dharma to him and make him the Sixth Patriarch. Do it quickly!”
‘Deluded’ here means thinking dualistically in terms of being vs. nonbeing, good vs. bad, you vs. me, etc. The Fifth Patriarch rebukes his disciples for not extinguishing their discriminative mind, which is the way to become liberated from the sea of suffering of birth and death, but instead for only seeking blessings. Ultimately, cutting off this mind of birth and death is what we mean by attaining ‘seeing the nature and achieving buddhahood.’ That experience is prajña and liberation. Thus, the mind that arises and ceases is the same for both sentient beings and sages; there is little difference between the two. So why, then, do we arouse this discriminative mind, rendering us unable to stop confrontation and conflict, when the sages don’t? It is simple.
In the Heart Sutra there is a line, ‘the five skandhas (aggregates) are each empty.’ If we understand what it means that they “are all empty,” then we will understand that we are devoid of any real substance; and since our consciousnesses and bodies are devoid of any real substance, we will realize that all phenomena are but the result of causal production and are therefore non-self. This is our original form; this is how we originally exist. We are not created to be that way by the Buddha or some other being; we originally exist that way, but by falling into our own delusions, we are unable to manifest that ability. Thus, once we understand that we have no real form, are empty, and are non-self, we will return to our original place. Hence, if we continue diligently with our practice so that we return to our original form and place, then we will be free even in the midst of the most frenetic activity, so that everyday becomes a good day and that everything in the world is wonderful. However, we must remember that even in the intermediary stages, one can still experience much happiness. Buddhist cultivation practice does not involve extreme asceticism. When we refer to asceticism, many misunderstand. One becomes free and peaceful to the same extent that one has advanced in the intermediary stage. We must understand this.