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News 97, While On The Path

An Upside-Down World

By resident disciple Chen, Hsihu Center, Formosa
(originally in Chinese)

Master once said that the mountain and water spirits in the novel "Journey To The West" were metaphorical allusions to spiritual practitioners' attachment to scenic landscapes.

At one time, resident disciples used to live in tents. But whenever we settled down somewhere and the flowers and trees we had planted were just beginning to bloom and grow beautifully, it was time for us to move on again. Later we moved into caves that we built ourselves and we were all excited, thinking that finally we would each have our own little world. Many of us racked our brains for ways to beautify our living quarters. When everything was almost in order, Master sent an instruction, "Males and females are to switch living areas." Suddenly we no longer had our very own personal caves.

When we were about to don the new red and blue monastic clothing, Master wisely and ingeniously reversed the concept that "red is for women and blue is for men". Then, when we gave up our monastic clothing, it marked an even greater breakthrough in our concepts about spiritual practice.

Several head resident disciples served different terms ranging from a day to a week or two weeks to several months or years. This was another way to break our attachments to fame and position. When we are unknowns, we are not aware of our desire for fame and gain. But as soon as we have them, we immediately become aware of them. The desire for fame and gain lies concealed sometimes. For instance, some people compete with others and are proud of their spiritual progress, of eating only one meal a day, and of meditating all night without the need of sleep. After they have practiced in this way for some time, they may appear all-powerful in their spiritual practice when in reality they have gained more and more obstinate pride inside. We are very fortunate to have a living Master who does not hesitate to break our ignorance and attachments in time.

Master also used the kitchen as a classroom to let us understand that true renunciation is possession without attachment. When we first joined the monastic group, the kitchen was nothing more than a piece canvas stretched out over two big woks. Later when Master's artistic creations brought in some money, She built a beautiful kitchen for us, all equipped with modern cooking facilities and a sofa set. We were delighted that we would no longer have to endure in the wind and rain. However, the enjoyment lasted only a few months before we left for Cambodia, where we went back to the old simple lifestyle but were as happy as ever.

Before we followed Master, we thought that the ideal model of spiritual practice was living a thrifty and simple life, looking sincere and meditating diligently. When we first renounced lay life, we thought that we would live in a quiet remote place to cultivate ourselves. However, just as we realized deep down that simple living was the most comfortable, unexpectedly Master pushed us back into the mundane world to let us learn some more lessons. In order to be in tune with society, we started to wear business suits and ties, which was a big sacrifice for us because we had to give up what we really liked. However, as time passed, we gradually realized that there is no such thing as mundane life, that everything we encounter in daily life is a lesson in spiritual practice. Again, we picked up one by one the things that we had previously renounced.

We know that Master prefers to dress simply, but in order to save sentient beings, She wears beautiful clothes and jewelry, which is just like being shackled. In renouncing the world yet remaining active in society, She is truly the acme of perfection. Masters of the past sacrificed their reputation, were condemned for being uncompassionate, let disciples freeze in the snow, burned disciples' arms to erase their suffering in hell, pretended to eat meat and drink alcohol, were subjected to disciples' criticisms and doubts - all for the purpose of breaking their preconceptions about spiritual practice. We can understand the painstaking efforts of these ancient masters. However, we doubt if we can ever anytime or anywhere find another like the Supreme Master Ching Hai, who has sacrificed Her own reputation and done many things that other spiritual practitioners would want to renounce, just to elevate our spiritual level.

Since ancient times, all enlightened masters have stressed that spiritual practice must entail three aspects: ordinariness, diligence and enlightenment. For most spiritual practitioners, diligence has become the yardstick for measuring spiritual progress while the other two aspects have been overlooked. Only one who is truly enlightened can be truly ordinary. That is why we say that a person of great wisdom often appears slow. Only then can one be in the light while in dirt. We cannot be ordinary when we still have preconceptions about spiritual practice, when we are still afraid of others' comments, and when we still live by other people's opinions about right and wrong, and good and bad. Likewise, we also frame our Master within our preconceptions. When Her actions fall outside of our preconceived framework, we criticize Her relentlessly, forgetting that spiritual practice is not perfect without ordinariness.

The Lotus Sutra states very clearly that the Buddhas (fully enlightened beings) can transform themselves into all kinds of beings, including gods, ghosts, kings, officials, ordinary people, wives and servants, in order to deliver sentient beings. As long as it benefits sentient beings, the concept of being ordinary, low, does not exist. Master has set an exemplary model of delivering sentient beings through song, dance, musical compositions, chess, poetry, painting and clothing. Indeed, She is the most realistic and perfect interpretation of the Lotus Sutra.


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