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Esoteric and Exoteric Buddhism

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 (Lecture delivered by Master Sheng-yen on Sunday, December 9, 1984)

The Surangama Sutra is collected in the Tripitaka in the Tantra section. So it would seem that the sutra belongs to the esoteric sect of Tantra. But we are not Tantric practitioners, nor are we part of an esoteric sect. Why then would I chose to lecture on this sutra?

To answer this question we must understand the origin of the sutra, why Buddha gave it to us. Buddha was responding to a problem that beset Ananda, his disciple. Ananda was very intelligent, but his practice wasn’t particularly deep. It happened one time that he went to beg for alms at a certain household. Ananda was handsome, and the woman of the house fell in love with him. She asked her mother to cast a spell on Ananda, and he fell under her influence. He was on the verge of breaking his precepts as a monk when Buddha decided to intervene. Buddha invoked a mantra, the primary mantra of this sutra. This removed the spell Ananda was under, and his clear mind returned. The girl, too, was affected by this mantra, and she was converted.

It was on this occasion that Buddha taught Ananda how to concentrate his mind. He showed that by developing one-mind, it is possible to cultivate samadhi power. Without this one-mind, it is very difficult to attain samadhi. Thus the sutra begins.

This Surangama Sutra appears in a Tantric collection because it contains a powerful mantra, but it also speaks of the practice of samadhi and so it rightly belongs to the Ch’an sect. In China, even after the Tantric sect no longer existed, this sutra was studied and the mantra was often recited. We used to recite it here at the Center, but the mantra is very long and difficult to remember.

The Surangama Sutra speaks of stilling the mind. It includes the reports of twenty-five great practitioners, including Bodhisattvas and Arhats. Each tells of his methods, experiences, and the steps that lead to enlightenment. Thus the sutra is divided into two parts: the first describes the ways to reach samadhi; the second reports the experiences of the great practitioners.

The sutra, says that practice necessitates keeping the precepts, maintaining the method, and continuing in a slow and gradual manner. But when a practitioner begins to make progress, problems arise. The sutra addresses these problems and the demonic states that may arise in the course of practice. If you want to practice in seclusion, bring this sutra. It will help you recognize demonic states, and show you when you are truly making progress.

This sutra is not often discussed. It is very difficult, and there are few who understand it well enough to speak about it. I don’t understand the sutra, so it is all right for one who doesn’t know to speak to those who also do not know. Even though I may not understand the sutra, I will act as though I do. And you, even though you might not understand, must also pretend and convince yourself that you do. Then I will not hesitate to speak on the sutra, and you will not lose your enthusiasm to hear it.

Strangely enough, someone who is blind can tell others the right way to go. That is because he has heard the right information. As long as you are not blind, you can follow the instructions and reach your destination. So here we are, I, a blind speaker, and you, blind listeners, yet we will find the way in this sutra.

As I have said, this sutra is used in both Tantra and Ch’an: that is, esoteric and exoteric Buddhism. I will use this occasion to discuss the relationship between them so that we can see the differences and the similarities in these two paths.

Practitioners of the esoteric sect usually say that those who practice exoteric Buddhism know only theory; they know neither the methods nor the process of practice. The esoteric feel that theirs is the only true way, that they are the only ones who put what they know into practice. For them the exoteric practitioner is like a person whose eyes are open, has speech, but can’t walk, has no legs, has nowhere to go. I have met quite a few people who told me that I’m wasting my time teaching Ch’an, that I only lead my disciples astray. Only by mastering Tantric Buddhism, they say, will I truly be able to help and deliver others.

I once asked a Tantric practitioner why he didn’t practice Ch’an. He said, “Tantric is helpful to me — I practice visualization, and there’s something for me to hold on to. And my Guru gave me some of his power when I was initiated. I believe in the power that he gave me.” I asked him how much progress he had made. He was using the method called “Red Avalokitesvara,” where you try to visualize the Boddhisattva in red. He replied, “I am now able to see Avalokitesvara, and he is beginning to give off a red glow. Now when I practice and see the red Boddhisattva I am very happy. If I were to practice Ch’an, well, there’s nothing there.”

Tantric practice emphasizes mantra recitation. A Tantric practitioner believes that a mantra recited over hundreds and thousands of times will bring genuine, powerful results. Prostrating over and over again is yet another Tantric practice. These methods definitely bring results. If they do not, then it means that you have heavy karmic obstructions, and you must recite mantras and perform prostrations for several more thousands of times. Tantric practice, especially in the beginning, offers something to hold on to. After serious practice, there is no doubt that you will get results. If you prostrate hundreds and thousands of times to the Buddha, it will not be his intrinsic powers that bring results, but the power within you. There is indeed genuine validity and truth to the Tantric conception and way of practice.

The power of one’s own mind is illustrated in the story of a poor, old woman who lived during the Ming dynasty. She used a method of practice popular at the time, which was to use soybeans to mark the recitation of Amitabha’s name. Each time the name was recited, a soybean would be put in a container. Usually, when the container was filled, it would be given away as a food offering, but this woman was so poor she could not afford to give away the beans, so she would just transfer them from one container to another and then back again. After practicing this for some time, it happened that every time she recited the Buddha’s name, a soybean would jump from one container to another without her having to use her hands. Was it because the soybeans turned into Amitabha Buddha? No, it was because the woman’s concentration had developed to such a point during her recitations that her mind had the power to move things. It was not the Buddha, but the functioning of her own mind that moved the soybeans.

Another story to illustrate this point is that of the first Emperor of the Ming dynasty, Chu Yuan-chang. Before he became Emperor, he was a monk in a monastery, and his job was to sweep the floor everyday. There were many Buddha and Bodhisattva statues, and it was difficult to sweep around them. Chu was constantly scolded by the old monk, because he couldn’t really sweep the floor near the statues very well. Therefore the young monk got the idea that it would be very nice if the statues would move when he swept. So everyday he would say, “Bodhisattvas, would you mind stepping aside, would you please step aside.” After a few years a strange thing happened: while he was sweeping one day, the young monk saw that the statues moved out of the temple and then returned when he had finished. The old monk was quite surprised. Was it the case that the statues moved for the sake of this young monk? No, it is the same as with the soybeans. A concentrated mind has the power to move things.

There really is nothing extraordinary about these methods, but their power and usefulness cannot be denied, as shown in the examples of the soybeans and the moving statues. If these methods are used in the proper way, they can be Dharma methods, but in mainland China they were not used as Dharrna methods. Thus the Ch’an sect departed drastically from the Tantric tradition. We say that these practices have a definite validity, but we do not often practice them, and so Ch’an has nothing of the mystical flavor of the Tantric tradition.

In both traditions it is natural for a practitioner to have unusual physiological and psychological reactions — seeing, hearing, or even dreaming things out of the ordinary. A Tantric practitioner will take what he has seen, heard, or dreamt as signals that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are recognizing his practice. A Ch’an practitioner may also have such experiences, but they are not emphasized and are not taken as signals or signs of anything in particular.

In Taiwan, I have a disciple who has been practicing with me for quite sometime. He has a good command of English, so when a certain Tibetan rinpoche was scheduled to lecture, he was asked to translate. He was very nervous. He had never practiced Tantra, and was afraid that he wouldn’t understand what the rinpoche said. In a quandary, he finally decided that if he didn’t understand, it was the rinpoche’s responsibility to make him understand. With this thought he went to sleep. The rinpoche came to him in a dream, placed his hand on the disciple’s head, and said, “You don’t have to be nervous. You will understand everything I say tomorrow. You don’t have to worry.” He had a wonderful feeling when the rinpoche touched him. The next morning it was the rinpoche who woke him up. My disciple immediately prostrated to the rinpoche and thanked him for entering his dream. Curious, the rinpoche asked, “What happened last night?” The disciple told him, and after a few more questions from the rinpoche, he concluded that it might not have been the rinpoche but a “yidam,” a Dharma protector, who came to him.

Later I asked him if he had ever dreamed of me. He said, “Yes, indeed, many times.” Then I asked if he thought that it was me who had entered his dreams. He said, “No, because Shih-fu doesn’t have a yidam.” So then I said to him, “O.K., I will go and find myself a yidam so that the next time you dream of me, you will be sure that it is my yidam that is entering your dream.” My disciple objected, “But in Ch’an there is no such thing as a yidam.”

This idea of a yidam brings us to a basic issue of practice. Yidams are Dharma-protecting deities who exist to protect both the Dharma and the practitioners. Any great practitioner will have a Dharma-protecting deity. Often such a deity will do things that were left undone by the practitioner, and will seek people to help him and solve problems for him. The existence of such deities is well accepted by both esoteric and exoteric Buddhism. But in Ch’an we should have no attachments. A Ch’an practitioner, then, should not hold on to such a deity, otherwise he may encounter serious problems in his practice. Other than the method, there is nothing to rely on in Ch’an. Even Buddha’s and Bodhisattvas have to be dropped, even the method must be dropped once it has produced results. So long as you rely on anything, you cannot be independent, and genuine progress will be impossible. Anyone who has participated in a retreat will realize this. Ch’an practice means to let go of all attachment: Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, deities. Only then will you make real progress.

There is a story of Ch’an master who arrived one morning at a farmhouse that belonged to a monastery. The master saw that everything had been cleaned and prepared for his arrival, even a great meal had been cooked. He was very surprised, and he asked the monk who had made these preparations, “Who told you that I would be coming here this morning?” The monk replied, “Abbot, last night, the deity of the land told me of you arrival.” The master said, “I am ashamed that my practice is so poor that a deity could catch a glimpse of my mind. All the food you have prepared: offer it to the deity.”

An ordinary person would have been happy to get all this attention and have a deity act as his messenger. But for a Ch’an master this was a disgrace — his practice was so weak that the thoughts in his mind were perceivable to the deity. There should be no thoughts in the mind. When this is achieved, the goal of practice has been reached. There are then no Buddhas and no Bodhisattvas in the mind and nothing for even a deity to see.

In Ch’an a beginning practitioner will use methods to still the mind, and, once a sufficient level of concentration is achieved, he will use a hua-t’ou or kung-an. These methods ignore psychological problems and aim only at discovering your own true nature. These are considered “sudden” methods.

Tantric methods are considerably different from Ch’an methods. Tantra emphasizes phenomena: various experiences and reactions that may arise in practice. If the Tantric practitioner stays at this level and remains attached to these experiences, then he will remain attached to the narrow sense of self, no matter how great the experiences of practice are. But if a practitioner working on visualizing a yidam, for example, reaches the stage where he is fully identified with the yidam, then he has reached the great sense of self. This is not the level of no-self, but there are methods in the Tantric tradition, the Mahamudra method used in the Kagyupa sect, for example, that do lead to no-self.

In Mahamudra the practice is on pure nothingness. In ancient times a practitioner would only be taught this method after he had been practicing for many years. More recently, the rules have become less strict, and it is possible that Mahamudra would be taught at the very beginning. But even using this method it is not easy to get to the stage of nothingness. If the practitioner is lucky, he will be able to use Mahamudra in a very clear state of mind, somewhat similar to that described in Silent Illumination. It is possible to attain this last state of nothingness in the Tantric tradition, but it takes many, many years of practice. It is a gradual approach — first visualizations are used, then Mahamudra. It is a safe method also, because it is gradual. The Ch’an method, on the other hand, is more sudden, more direct. Once you have attained a certain level of concentration, you aim directly at your self-nature.

Tantric practice is no shortcut to Buddhahood. But there are many good things about the Tantric approach. There is emphasis on additional practice, such as mantra recitation, and there are many virtuous deeds that must be performed in order to accumulate merit. But you should not believe that these methods will bring sudden enlightenment.

Even in Ch’an, once you have had an enlightenment experience, you must still practice for a great while. There really are no short cuts in Ch’an or Tantra — there is no free lunch. We each have to judge our own causes and conditions. We must judge that in this situation esoteric Buddhism is better for me, or at this point exoteric Buddhism is better. In both traditions the ultimate goal is the same.