19 September 2008

Me Or Not Me?

I have spent most of my life asking the big questions. Who am I? Why are we here? Why are we so violent, so destructive of life? Can we live in harmony with each other and all creatures and all the earth?

For all that asking, I feel I have little knowledge to offer. But there is one thing that I do know.

Everything is as it is.

One unbroken whole.

One act of being.

We live in devotion, not to what is, but to an image of what is, to a story concocted in the mind to make sense out of what it can not truly comprehend.

The mind lives by distinction and differentiation. By relating what is new to what is already known.

That is its nature.

So if we live in devotion to the mind’s image of reality, we live in fragments.

We live in the belief in distinction and separation.

We live in the past.

We live in untruth.

We forget that the mind’s experience of what is, and the image it creates from that experience, is just a tiny, keyhole glimpse onto the whole.

The only reality is the whole of everything.

All form. All emptiness. All being.

This is not trivial.

These habits of mind go very deep. They are ingrained in the nervous system.

Some are obviously negative and destructive.

Others are accepted by nearly everyone as "normal."

For instance, the thought habit that identifies the body as "me." That puts a label on anything that happens on or within the body as "me" and anything outside the membrane of skin as "not me."

What about the Oxygen the body breathes in and the Carbon Dioxide it breathes out? Me or not me?

What about the water it drinks? Or the ocean, the source of that water? Me or not me?

What about the plant or the animal that produces the proteins and the minerals that make blood and bone? Me or not me?

Or the sun that fuels it all, or the elementary particles, spread through out the universe that make up that sun? Me or not me?

Where does the body begin and where does it end? The whales teach us something about this. The body is continuous with the world it swims in.

Where do I begin? Where do I end? Who am I, in reality? As opposed to who or what I THINK I am.

If I come to this point, realizing that what I have always accepted as "me" is just a deeply habitual thought pattern, what happens?

Find out.

Find out what it means, to live in devotion to the truth of wholeness, rather than the illusion of separation. To live in devotion to the incomprehensible.

I can't tell you what will happen to you. But this feels to me like the root of the whole problem.

It is why we see ourselves as separate. From nature. From each other.

It is why we are unwilling to live with less.

It is why we are unwilling to question our cultural and personal assumptions.

It is why we fall into devotion to greed and comfort and security, to getting more and more for ourselves.

It is why our opinions and beliefs are so inflexible, so resistant to being contradicted by even our own experience.

It is why we make enemies.

Because we believe in the mental image of ourselves.

We believe that our thoughts and opinions define us. Tell us who we really are.

We live out the whole drama of believing the story of the self, whatever that story may be, and we forget the wholeness.

We forget what we truly are.

The whole of everything. All form. All emptiness. All being.

At the very least, devoting your life energy to the truth means abandoning your beliefs and opinions and self images in the face of new experience that contradicts the old. Because you know your beliefs and opinions and past experiences do not define you.

Where did your earliest understanding of the world come from?


Directly engaging the world without prior knowledge.

Being immersed in the unknown and learning about it physically, through spontaneous interaction, and seeing what works and what doesn't.

At the very least, devotion to the truth means being constantly at play.

In this playful devotion to the truth, beyond the known image, there is a radical freedom. You know that who you truly are is in this moment, free of the past.

There is no knowing and no telling where this freedom might lead, for in this freedom the whole universe participates, and you do not know where the whole universe is going.

What am I?

The whole of what is.

All form. All emptiness. All at play.

All deeply, deeply in Love.

By John L Crockett

Eight Spiritual Laws

Eight Spiritual Laws

These "laws" of the spirit emerged over the course of an extended period of solitude. I call them laws, because in my experience they are as ineluctable as the laws of gravity and motion. A few are familiar to practicing Buddhists: the Law of Impermanence particularly. But I did not learn them from any religious or spiritual system. I have watched them at work in my own life. They are not matters of belief. You can test them against your own experience and either verify their validity, or discard them.


The Law of Appearances: Nothing is as it appears to be.

All experience consists of the sensory and mental apparatus of the experiencing organism, not of objective reality. Sensory illusion is relatively trivial compared to mental illusion, which is much more troublesome. Mental illusion filters and obscures our experience so that our view of reality can become deeply divided from reality itself, from what actually is. This is the state most of us are in most of the time. Since everything known and experienced is at best a minor echo of reality, and at worst a delusional fiction, how then is one to live truly? Is it possible to live out of being rather than out of knowing? Summing up: Everything known is fictional. Everything lived is real. We believe the fiction and deny the real; Trusting what is known, and not trusting Life.

The Law of Interdependence: Nothing exists in and of itself.

Everything exists in relationship to and dependence on everything else that exists. This is true at all levels, organismic, ecological, and cosmic. In some sense, the universe is one organism, one being, made up of interdependent systems, just as the body is made up of many cells, and is host to many organisms on which it depends. The sense of separation that humans often feel is a complete illusion.

The Law of Impermanence: Everything that is born, dies.

Everything that arises, falls away or is transformed into something else. Thoughts. Breaths. Heartbeats. Bodies. Species. Suns. Galaxies. Reality is in constant motion, and always returning to emptiness. One can believe in eternal life and reincarnation. But these beliefs fly in the face of all our experience of reality, which is that for anything to exist at all, it must have a beginning and it must have an end. As an aside, eternity is often thought to be a very, very long time. Actually, it is the very absence of time. In the absence of time, nothing is born and nothing dies. That which is eternal, is that which can neither be born nor die. Neither created nor destroyed. And what is that?

The Law of Emptiness: Form is what we know and experience, but form is mostly emptiness, and emptiness is where we live.

Emptiness and form are two aspects of the same thing, just as the head and tail of a coin are two sides of the same thing. We are surrounded by emptiness. It is vast. It is everywhere. It gives shape to all form, just as form gives shape to it. We get enchanted by form and become blind to the emptiness. The walls of the room define the space, but it is the space that we use, that we live in. Our blindness to emptiness is like clinging to the wall and never using the full available space of the room. Those who get to know emptiness realize that it is the heart of being.

The Law of the Present: This particular time and place are the only reality.

If we constantly live in resistance to whom and what and where and when we are, we can not live fully. If we derive our sense of self from anything other than who and what and where we are right now, we will never be happy. Living in the present is easy, but we make it hard. Living in the present, which is the only reality, means being open to everything exactly as it is and clinging to nothing. What we tend to do is just the opposite: close our minds and our experience to almost everything except our own habitual thoughts, and grasp at everything that serves the pattern of those thoughts. Thus is it possible to go from birth to death without ever really living. And since the whole universe participates in the creation of this and every moment, living here and now is a wee bit of a threat to the ego/self, which thrives on the illusion of being separate, autonomous, and in control.

The Law of Love (which encompasses all the other laws): The essential nature of reality is total acceptance of, and movement with, everything exactly as it is.

This is very difficult for most of us to accept. We tend to define ourselves by what we exclude or whom we exclude. Total acceptance of everything exactly as it is feels like personal annihilation to most people. Who am I if not my dislikes, my gripes, my revulsions, my conflicts, my opinions? Who am I if not who I think I am?

The Law of the Separate Self: There is no seperate "self!"

This "law" is actually our attempted violation of all the other laws. To believe in the fiction of the separate self is to violate all these laws, and since these are laws that can not be violated, the attempt to do so is the root of violence, and causes great suffering, for oneself, for others, and for the Earth. The illusion of separation, and it is truly only an illusion, a tale we tell ourselves, comes from resisting and clinging. Imagine if the "in" breath tried to separate itself from the" out" breath and declare that it alone was eternally real. Death would not be far off.

The Law of Release: We will return endlessly to all that is resisted or held until all is accepted and released.

It is my experience that human suffering springs from our attempts to resist Life or cling to Life. The way to end suffering is to embrace life - including that which is painful - but not cling to it. By returning to those places where we have been hurt, or frightened, or shut out, and allowing ourselves to fully experience the pain, without resisting it and without clinging to it, without weaving a story around it; that which was held, and which persisted as suffering, can finally be released. It is an almost miraculous alchemy that transforms suffering into joy.

One could also state this law as follows: we will continue to attempt to violate the first five Laws until we become aware of the violation, and so begin to embody the Law of Love.

By John L Crockett

Law of Causation

Besides the Laws of Permanence and Cause and Effect, the Buddha also preached the Law of Causation. Through his meditation, Buddha observed that a thing does not exist independently by itself. Every existence is a combination. Without such as a composition, nothing actually exists. To beis to be under the formation of causes and conditions.

Let's try some observations as the Buddha did. Scientists now confirm that the human body is a combination of one hundred trillion cells which create the formation of blood, bones, and inner organs such as the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, stomach, intestines... and of outer organs such as eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin, etc. Lacking one or more of these components, a body does not function properly or simply cannot exist.

The Law of Causation shows that in humans, there is no such thing called the "ego" or "self". The concept of "I" or "You", with the underlying idea that "Mine" is always better than "Yours" is a delusion. Actually, if "my" condition is better than "yours", it is only because the karma of previous life is not the same, rather than because my body is better than yours.

In addition, even if the body is make from a perfect junction of cells and organs, it will not last long if there is no proper provision of fresh air, nutritious food, and potable water.

In other words, the Law of Causation also means that: "Things only exist when there are enough causes which come together under favorable conditions; and things will disintegrate when causes or conditions are scattered".

Obviously, to be a human, there are numerous causes and conditions that blend together and create an existence. From the day a mature egg met a healthy sperm and grew in a womb, there are countless unfavorable causes and conditions that may abolish the chance of being born a healthy human child.

Statistics shows that in the Third World, the percentage of young children who survive their harsh environment after seven years of age is also very low. Apparently, being born in the Third World is having less favorable causes and conditions than in the industrialized world.

The Buddha explained that the earnest observations on any events in daily life, one can recognize that nothing happens without numerous causes and conditions involved.

Normally, they appear in innumerable form that result in good or bad occurrences, depending on one's karma. When karma is formed and causes and conditions cast on, it is not in anyone's hand to control the event any more; not even Gods.

Scientists today express the same about the Law of Causation. If there is enough Oxygen and Hydrogen in proper proportions and if the condition, if favorable, it will product Water (2H + O = H2O). Otherwise, no water exists. This same law applies to all aspects of the human world, including family structures, politics, economics, and social activities.

by Thich Thanh Tu translated by Minh Tâm 

Law of Cause and Effect

In addition to the Law of Impermanence, Buddha preached the Law of Cause and Effect. Where there is a cause, there will be an effect. The effect may follow the cause immediately or eventually, from previous life to present, and even future life. Of course, a good cause will produce a good effect and a bad cause will give rise to a bad one. In brief, Buddha advised his audience, :"Would you like to know what you were doing in a previous life, see what you have inherited in this life. To predict what you will be receiving in the next life, carefully observe what you are doing now".

Most people, due to lack of knowledge of the Law of the Cause and Effect, believe that their misfortunes were contrived by a Creator. With this common belief, people heavily become dependent of a heavenly deity who control their fates. As a result, people like to pray to all sorts of Gods they can think of to protect them, to bestow on them good fortunes over the bad ones. More often, people willingly admin that they have sinned, and readily succumb themselves to the forgiveness of an imaginary but powerful Creator. In that line of thinking, a human being inherits no dignity and freedom; he is nothing but a puppet of his creator.

To Buddha, that belief is not based on the truth. The truth is that everyone is free to control his or her own life. He is solely responsible for his actions and he is the only one who bears the results. Happiness or misery, success or failure... it all depends on what he had done or has been doing. Good deeds will bring happiness; evil action will breed misery. As an old saying dictated: "He who sows winds, reaps the storm".

Not only does the Law of Cause and Effect govern human actions, it also is universal. An orange tree will produce orange fruit; a lemon tree will provide lemon ones. When dark, heavy clouds gather, one can be sure that rain is going to fall. And a boy is too lazy to do this homework, his parents can be certain that he is going to fail his class.

Just observe any event around us. We will realize that nothing is untouched by the law. By the same token we won't see any interference from Gods. That is why Bodhisattva is always doing only good deeds, and staying away from evil actions. After all, the Bodhisattva understands the law. His life, therefore, is free of god-controlled fears. He is only afraid of himself, of his three poisons (Greed, Hatred, and Delusions) which will inflict evil behaviors on him, he is not afraid of any heavenly deities' curses.

On the contrary, common people make their lives miserable due to their evil actions. They life, they cheat, they fabricate stories, they speak evil, and they even have plans to hurt other for their own gain. In brief, they act under the stipulations of greed, anger, or attachment. Naturally, when a bad seed is sowed, an evil effect will sooner or later be delivered. It is clear that only the doer is responsible for the result of what he has done not a God or a Creator. Neither praying, nor blessing can save one from one's own devilish actions.

To prove this viewpoint, one day the Buddha raised questions to a group famous Brahmins who, claiming that they had power to talk to God, regularly held prayer sessions for rich people in return for gold and money. They first question was: "If a man pushes a big chunk of heavy rock down into a well and asks you to pray that it floats, can you do that?". - "No!" replied the Brahmin: "The rock is so heavy, and we cannot pray God for it to float. It has to sink, no matter what".

The next question was: "If a man pour a bucket of oil into a well and asks you to pray that the oil can sink to the bottom, can you do that?". - "No!" came the reply: "Oil is so light; no matter what we do, we cannot make it submerge".

The Buddha, then, concluded: "By the same token, if a person is always doing good deed, his karma will be as light as oil. He does not have to pray for his fate. Conversely, if one only indulges in evil actions, his karma will be as a big chunk of rock and will pull him down to Hell. Any praying to God for him to be saved would be futile".

To emphasize the importance of the Law of Cause and Effect, in his first lecture, the Buddha preached the Four Basic Truth:

    1. The sufferings.

    2. The customs and habits that lead to sufferings.

    3. The cessation of sufferings.

    4. The Way that procures cessation.

By the following his teaching, one can save him or herself without the salvation of any deities.

To make himself clearly and logically understood, Buddha explained that human sufferings are derived from causes created by customs and habits, which are generally devilish, by nature. From generation to generation, from one life to the next these devilish cause are repeated and carried over. As result, he who has created these evil causes has to repay the debts afterwards. In order words, the suffering that humans must endure in number (1) is the effect produced by number (2). Now, there is a way to end those suffering. To reach the cessation as effect in number (3), one has to practice the Way as the good cause governed by number (4).

The Way, consisting of the Eightfold Path is devised to completely eradicate the three poisons (greed, hatred, and delusion) which, for many lives, seriously infest human behaviors and cause diabolical thoughts and actions. The Eightfold Path includes: Appropriate Views, Appropriate Thoughts, Appropriate Language, Appropriate Actions, Appropriate Livelihood, Appropriate Effort, CorrectMindfulness and Correct Medication.

Nowadays, in practicing the Law of Cause and Effect to change our lives for the better, we can proudly declare that Buddhism is not mysticism, but very competitive to the advancement of Science. As a matter of face, the very existence of Science today is based on the Law Of Cause and Effect; which, in the essence, is nothing new to the teaching of Buddha since over 2500 years ago.

by Thich Thanh Tu translated by Minh Tâm 

Law of Impermanence

Buddha had always reminded his audience that things are impermanent, including life. Everything is forever changing. He insisted that his followers shoud observe and meditate on those in order to recognize them as a first-hand experience.

Let us try some observations. From the human to the material world, there is nothing that does not change. In the human body, cells split, grow and die incessantly. Through the processes, the cells transform an egg and a sperm into a cute baby; a baby into a youthful teenager; a teenager into a loving, beautiful young woman; a young woman into a delicate wife and an adorable mother; and then, all traits of beauty of an energetic life eventually fade away and are replaced by a frail, unpleasant silhouette waiting for disintegration. How pitiful and ephemeral human life is! Even in the United States where the advancement of medicine and technology can prolong life to over a hundred years, people cannot stay strong and free from illness. All elderly people are dying to pass away from their unproductive years. This Law of Impermanence, thus, applies to all beings. No one can escape it. Because it is an eternal truth.

Or take a look at a brand new car. No matter how much care you put into it, after three to five years the car shows signs of wear and tear. Finally, it will be winding into a wreckage.

And look at any relationship. None of them will last forever. As time passes, neighbors move out, friendships disappear, even kinship loosens, not to mention marital loves.

We are suffering because we do not understand the law, nor do we acknowledge it. We wish to stay young forever, avoiding sickness and death. We lament our health when sick, and are terrified when death shows up at our doorstep.

Or we want to be always rich, to experience a comfortable life or satisfaction, to have a wonderful family with a handsome or beautiful spouse and smart children. We are afraid of adversity and of any changes.

Therefore, some of us come to Buddha, unfortunately, not for the truth in his teachings, but because of wrong thoughts that we can pray Buddha for whatever we want. No wonder people become increasingly greedy and miserable, despite the fact that they go to temple very often.

Should we understand and recognize the Law of Impermanence, we could change our perspective toward life. We would admit life as it is, no matter what kind of change or adversity we encounter. That is the teaching of Buddha. We would be brave and wise in any circumstance, and more sympathetic to others. Never again would we cry when facing a mishap, an illness, or even death. And that is the appropriate view, from which Zen Master Van Hanh in the Lý dynasty put into verse, regarding life and human conditions:

The human body, like lightning, appears and departs, 
As tree grow in Spring and droop in Fall. 
Despite its growth or ruin, we should be not alarmed, 
Considered dewdrops on tips of grass as they are all.

However, there are critics who interpret Buddhist viewpoint to be discouraging, or even fatalistic. If things are always changing and human lives are predetermined to suffer and die, why do we bother to maintain a constructive and decent life? Not only does this interpretation misconstrue the Teaching; it represents a shallow thought.

With an earnest observation, it is true that life is forever changing? But facing a truth, one can react either negatively or positively, depending or his or her point of view. The Buddhist teaching, in reality, broadcasts a positive viewpoint. The aforementioned verse has proved it. Life is as short as a lightning, which appears and departs in a blink, or as trees that grow in the Spring and droop in the Fall. Nothing remain unchanged. Despite many changes, an enlightened would recognize them as they are, considering them as dewdrops on tips of grass.

(A dewdrop is so beautiful, especially under the early morning sun. But it won't last long. And certainly nobody is going to cry when a dewdrop liquefies; because that is the way it is).

Moreover, Prince Siddhartha became Buddha only because of his positive outlooks. After witnessing the pain and bitterness of his destitute, sick, and dying people through his rare outing trips, he took a solemn promise to search for a Way capable of erasing all human suffering. In other words, his wished to bring happiness to all human in this painful world.

In order to realize his vows, he bravely renounced his life of luxury and prestige and went into the wilderness for an ascetic life. Later on, after attaining the Way, the Buddha proclaimed that to successfully follow his path, one should arm oneself with some degrees of intelligence, compassion, and courage.

by Thich Thanh Tu translated by Minh Tâm 




1. The mind is Buddha. When there are desires, vexations and attachments in the mind, this Buddha becomes a sentient being. When this mind is pure, a sentient being becomes a Buddha.

2. If you cannot assume responsibility for your own cultivation or endure its trials and hardships, then you are at best studying Buddhism, not practicing it.

3. No matter how much external circumstances change, if we can see through and let go of vexations, delusions, and attachments, with the mind always in equanimity and suchness, having clarity and true understanding—that is Zen.

4. Prosperity and adversity both facilitate our cultivation. They are expedient means for our cultivation. Prosperity fulfills us; adversity disciplines us.

5. If we are content, our minds will be at peace, we will see our blessings, be filled with gratitude and a willingness to help all, and our lives will filled with hope and happiness.

6. If we face suffering without worry then we can remove karmic hindrances, settle disputes, turn our enemies into friends, and be united in the Dharma family.

7. With respect we eradicate arrogance, with compassion we extinguish anger, with harmony we eliminate violence, with truth and sincerity we eradicate deceit.

8. To be liberated is not escaping reality. It is eliminating vexations, eradicating erroneous thoughts, and opening the knot in our minds. When the mind is opened to true understanding, that is liberation.

9. The riches and honor in this life are fleeting, like the dew on the flower, evaporating when the sun rises. The only true prosperity in life is when the mind is pure, clear, and content.

10. Vexations and joy are only within one single thought. The key is, when faced with the problems in life, can your mind maintain tranquility, will you have the wisdom to understand and observe accurately?

11. The one key word in practicing the Way is tolerance—to endure patiently and accept suffering. By accepting suffering, we eliminate suffering. This eradicates karmic hindrances, and prepares us for supreme enlightenment.

12. Purity of mind is to be away from the mind of delusion. The Diamond Sutra says, "the mind moves freely without attachment." That is the mind of purity.

How To Change Your Life

Good evening cultivators! We are learning to observe the breath. That is the first step in meditation. We are learning to observe, observe things as they are. 

    Now this is what awakening is all about. The Buddha was a fully awakened person. Awakened or enlightenment means to see, to understand things as they really are. Understand everything: the world, the universe, your mind, people, and all other beings. Understand them and the self for what they are--not for what you think they are.

Impermanence Is A Fact of Life 

    We are not called Buddhas, we are not enlightened because we do not see the reality of things. We do not see impermanence as a fact of life. Observe how impermanence is a fundamental element in life. Think about how everything changes throughout your life, how everything comes to pass. New things come and go. Impermanence is all around us.

    Suffering is the first of the fundamental truths that the Buddha taught in the Four Noble Truths. This first truth, suffering, is closely associated with impermanence. “Oh, our loved ones have departed, “ we would lament. “Such sorrow, such pain. Why did this happen?” We put the blame on life’s impermanence.

    But if you take a closer look, impermanence by itself does not cause suffering. If a stranger died, you would probably not feel any pain. Instead you may think, “People die all the time. That’s life. All people must die one day.”

    What is the difference? The difference is that when we come to know a person, we become attached to that person, and that is what creates the pain. When we care about someone, often we also simultaneously create an illusion, an illusion of permanence. We think that the person will stay the same, will always be there. We do not recognize, we ignore, or we choose to ignore the reality that all things change. That is the problem. Now this does not mean that we should not form close relationships nor that we should not care about others. What is important is to accept reality when impermanence hits. Do not delude ourselves or escape from facts. Delusion is what prevents us from becoming enlightened. We create a lot of delusions about people, about the world.

    It is very important to recognize this. Whatever relationships that we encounter--with parents and children, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, friends and classmates—do we not always have this inherent belief that “things will stay the way it is; we will always be good friends; I will always have this good job” ? But this thinking goes against reality, we are not observing reality as it is. When we live in this delusion, we ignore things, we choose not to see things, we lie to ourselves. Then when something happens we are shocked by it. In truth, the world changes continuously. A lot of different conditions come into being. A lot of different factors come into play—things are always changing.

    So impermanence is a fact of life. That in itself is not painful; it is not the source of our problems. Not recognizing impermanence, instead creating an illusion that things will stay the way they are for a long time--that is the source of suffering. The more we get attached to things, the less we can accept it when they come to pass, and the more pain we feel. To see life for what it is, to accept things as they occur, is an important lesson for us all. You need not believe in what I have just said. In his teachings, the Buddha always encouraged people to examine things for themselves.

   When we live in illusion of permanence, when we cling to the past, then we will not be ready for the present. When things happen we are surprised, displeased, thinking it is unfair. And we wonder about the future. At some time or another, we have probably all asked questions like, “Why do these things happen? Why was I born? Why do these good/bad things happen to me instead of others? Why are some people born so rich? Why are some people so poor? “ There are reasons. They are not accidents. There are reasons for everything.

Can The Future Be Foretold?

    Many Chinese people in the olden times, and even nowadays, are very interested in fortune telling. “What’s my future?” They want to go find out, and so there are many fortunetellers around. Few of them even seem to be somewhat accurate. But nobody is a hundred percent accurate all the time. Now in the western world, in these modern times, how do we view this? Is it a superstition? Can future really be foretold? We shall soon understand.

    In the Ming Dynasty there was a well-known man named Yuan, Liao Fan. When he was about five or six years old, he met a fortuneteller, who foretold his life. He said, “You will take a government examination when you are eighteen. You will get this grade and pass. You will then obtain a certain position in the government.” He even knew how much salary Liao Fan would get. “But,” he continued, “you will only go this far. You will not be able to get very high in the government. You will get married at this age. You will have no children. And then, you will die at the age of fifty-three.”

    This is a true story. As Liao Fan grew up, everything that was foretold came true. When he took his government examinations, he got exactly the same grades, position, and salary that the fortuneteller predicted. He was amazed. “So life is predestined,” he thought to himself. “What’s the point in making an effort then?” So he came to believe that life and the future were all predetermined. How else was it possible for someone to foretell your future? “Things will just turn out the way it is supposed to. What would be the point of trying?” He stopped striving and took an easy life. He started traveling and sightseeing all over China.

    One day he came upon a mountain. In that mountain was a monastery where a renowned Chan (Zen) master lived. He went in and saw the Chan master sitting in meditation. So Liao Fan sat down in meditation also. They sat that way for three days and three nights without moving. The Chan master was quite surprised. “This is no ordinary person,” he thought. As we all know, having just sat through a half-an-hour session, that this was no easy feat!

    The Chan master asked Liao Fan, “What experiences have you had in your life? How can you sit there without raising a single thought? You are very calm.”

    Liao Fan told the master about the fortune-teller and his predictions, and then added, “I came to the realization that everything in life is predetermined. What is the point of doing anything? What is the point in raising any thought? I just take life as it comes. Things will run their own course.”

    Upon hearing this, the Chan master laughed at him. “And here I thought you were someone extraordinary. Actually, you are only an ordinary man. Quite ordinary.”

    Liao Fan was a bit upset. He was bright. At the age of eighteen, he passed his official exams, and received a fairly decent governmental post. Back in those days, this also was not an easy task! He did quite well for himself and was proud of the fact too.

    He asked, “Why do you say that I am an ordinary person?”

    “When you were six, someone predicted your life. It’s been twenty years since, and what he predicted is still true. This means that you are common like the rest,” the Chan master’s replied. “Ordinary people’s lives can be foretold while exceptional ones cannot be. For the very virtuous and very immoral people, their lives cannot be foretold.”

    Liao Fan became curious.

Weaving The Future Pattern

    The Chan master explained, “Why is it that your whole life can be prophesied? As you react to things the same way, a pattern forms. You don’t really learn, you don’t really change yourself. When someone gets angry with you, you get angry in return. When someone praises you, you are flattered, and then your pride becomes inflated. In the past you were like this, now you are like this, in the future you would still be like this. So the pattern continues.”

    Whenever we think or do something, something called karma is created. Karma is action, and actions have effects on the universe, the cosmos; karma has an effect in Dharma realm. Whatever you do, the retribution will come back to affect you. This concept is actually very scientific. Newton discovered that, when you apply a force, a same and equal force from the opposite direction will return; for every action there is a reaction. This is just one of the special cases of karmic law. When we perform good deeds, good things will happen to you. When you perform bad deeds, negative things will come back to you. Anything that you do, performing an action or deed, you create karma. A corresponding outcome will thus be created. Its effect will show in due time.

    Now there are people in this world who can tell the future, see the future “patterns.” Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, great cultivators, people with samadhi (people who have attained deep concentration states), they can see that. And then we have the fortunetellers who may also predict that. He may not be a Buddha or a cultivator. He may not even know how to meditate. But yet he can tell something about the future. Why? Simply put, fortune telling is based on statistics, a set of rules devised by observing many people and averaging out a common pattern. There are signs that one can learn to observe. Some people can look at your face and tell something about you. It is a matter of acute observations and following some rules.

    What we have done throughout our lives leaves imprints in the mind. Your gestures and physical characteristics become extensions of these imprints. The Buddha sees that the body and the mind are not separate entities, they are one of the same. Your face, your body reflects your mind. If you can learn to perceive this, you would have the ability to know more about a person. But nobody can be a hundred percent accurate.

    Your future is the accumulation of all your actions done up to the present moment. Everything done from the past up to now weaves a future pattern. This is just causality. If we never improve or change ourselves and we react to situations in the same manner, then basically everything will run accordingly. For example, if I slapped you, I would be able to tell your future. You would probably get angry or slap me right back. That is predicting the future. I took a probable guess and predicted your future reaction.

    Then why is it that the lives of virtuous people cannot be determined? They do not fall into the norm. Very virtuous people examine their own actions closely; they are constantly improving themselves, and so change their future constantly. Thus their future becomes difficult to determine. The same holds true for very immoral people. Their minds are constantly going on the wrong track. They always create evil karma and thereby alter their lives for the worse. In both these cases, the actions have fallen out of the norm, out of the range of predictability for that of an average person.

    So the Chan master told Liao Fan, “Why do I say that you are ordinary? Because the predictions still hold true. You are of the average lot.”

    “Are you saying then that I can change my future, that it doesn’t always have to be this way?” asked Liao Fan.

    ”Yes, certainly. And I will teach you.”

Understanding Causality

    Now we come to a very profound concept: the causal relationship of all things. It is a fundamental Buddhist realization. If you wish to obtain a certain result, you need to do certain things. We need to examine, to recognize the right causal relationship of situations. You need to find the right cause and conditions that will create the right results. That is science. In fact, that is exactly what science and scientists do. They try to find the right causal relationships of things in the world.

    If you do not want awful things to happen in the future, you can try to change it. As we have said, the future is determined by everything previous to it. Why did the fortuneteller predict that Liao Fan would die at the age of fifty-three? He must have preformed some action, some karma, to get this result. How does one change this? How do we live a longer life? We need to understand the causal relationships between long lives and short lives. If we do a lot of killing, we take away the lives of other beings. As a karmic result, we will have poorer health, or live shorter lives. And if in a single lifetime we kill excessively, we will live shorter lives or be killed for many lifetimes to come. This is causality.

    Once we have understood causal relationships, we must not forget another important element: acceptance. Everything that happens to us, good or bad, is due to things that we have done previously. When we get into an “accident”, when we earn a good living, when someone dies, etc., if these things have already happened, then they are in the past. There is nothing else to do but to accept. We often say, “time can heal everything.” Does time heal anything? No. What happens is that as time goes by, we gradually accept reality. Acceptance, that is what heals. So why not accept things now, as they happen?

    However, this is not the same as believing in a predetermined future. The point stressed here is to learn how to let go now instead of ten years later, then we will not suffer as much. Sooner or later you will have to accept. Wise people perceive things as they are, accept events as they come. This is not being pessimistic. This is being realistic. We can still try to change the world and change ourselves, because things can still be changed before they happen, not after.

    The Chan master continued, “If you want to change the future, if you want to live a longer life, then you need to understand what are the causes for a long life. You need to stop acts of killing, and even more importantly, protect and save lives. Do things that can save people and animals. For example, donate medicine. Save animals from being slaughtered. When you perform these acts, you change your future.”

    He then added, “Promise yourself to do a thousand good deeds. Perform a thousand virtuous actions to help others. Whenever you complete an act of goodness, mark it down in a book. Keep a track of these. Try to finish in three years.”

    And so he did. One, two, three years finally passed and Liao Fan finished. He felt very happy. His life was more meaningful. He decided to make a new vow, a new resolve. “I will do ten thousand more over this many years,” he promised himself.

    Gradually things began to change. The predictions were no longer accurate. He was not supposed to get any higher positions in the government but he got promoted. He was to have no children but he had two excellent sons. And then when he was fifty-three, he did not die. Liao Fan actually changed his future. When he was sixty-nine, he wrote a book about his realizations called, “The Four Lessons of Liao Fan.” (了凡四訓) It is still in circulation now and is even translated into English.

    As we see, a large degree of the future is in our hands. I say to a large degree because there are still some things that are very difficult to alter. But our current actions can definitely change what is yet to come.

The Key to a New Future

    The Buddha once said, “If you want to know what you have done in your past (including past lives), just look at what has happened in this life. If you want to know what will happen to your future, just look at what is being done in this life.” (欲知過去因,今生受者是。欲知未來果,今生作者是。) There is no need to go to a fortuneteller. All we need to do is to look at this life’s experiences. Has it been good? Has it been bad? Has it been mixed? If it has been mostly good and happy, then that means that in the past you have done many good deeds. You made others happy, you created good karma between you and other people. If most of your life has been unhappy and unfortunate, then that means that we have not planted good seeds previously. We created a lot of bad karma. Just by understanding this Principle of Causality, you can tell about your own past. We do not need a fortuneteller or go to get hypnotized. The details, who you were, what you did, are not all that important. Why? It is already in the past. What would be the point? Take a deep look at this life and you will have a good general idea of the past.

    As for our future, “If you want to know what will happen to your future, just look at what is being done in this life.” This is the key. There is an important difference between “what has happened” and “what is being done.” For example, if somebody treats you badly, that is a result of karma from the past. This is something that you are experiencing now, something that “has happened.” How you react to this situation though is “what is being done” and this will determine the events in the future. Do you understand? You cannot change what has already occurred. However, when you change your reactions, you change the future outcomes. If someone treats you badly that means that somewhere along the way, bad karma was created between the two of you. If you react to things in the same negative way and think, “He treated me badly, I will get him back, fair is fair,” then you have created the same cycle over again. This is samsara. It like playing ping-pong, hitting back and forth. The same situation happens over and over again. A predictable pattern forms.

    If we understand this, we should be determined to change our reactions. Instead we say, “He treats me badly, I will forgive and forget. I will be like the vast empty space and let go.” Immediately the karma between the two of you changes for the better. Bad karma turns into good karma.

    The future depends on what you have done, and what you do now. And what you do now comes from the mind and the thoughts that you have at this moment. That is why we need to meditate in order to become more mindful. Everything begins from the mind. Everything you do, everything you say. You need to be aware of the type of your thoughts that you are having. What are you thinking? How do you react to things? The change starts from there, the future changes from there.

    Through awareness you can detect your thoughts, catch them before they turn into an action. It is like catching a thief before it commits a crime, and transforming the thief into a sage. Transform your thoughts into actions that will bring you happiness. Have thoughts of equality, of tolerance, of compassion. Then turn these thoughts into actions. Generosity and charity will bring you prosperity; giving comfort, solace and compassion will bring peace and blessings. Protecting life will give you good health and a long life. This is the Buddhist principle of causality. When you understand it, you take life into your control. Life then becomes very positive. You can always change things for the better, beginning at this very moment. Detect your thoughts, become aware. What are you thinking? Exam them closely. Catch yourself and ask, “am I falling back to my old ways, the old habitual ways of reacting? That is not being very mindful is it?” Become mindful, live a mindful life, that is cultivation.

Transcribed from discourse given by Ven. Jian-Hu, Zen Buddhism I class, 
Dec 29, 2000, Buddha Gate Monastery