From Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s notes:
>> With wisdom, we listen, contemplate and practice. With a settled mind, our spiritual aspirations will be proper. By upholding the precepts, we eliminate afflictions; thus we guard against wrongs and stop evil and guide people onto a safe and stable path.
>> "This is the parable of a 500 yojanas long, dangerous, difficult, and evil road. It lies in an extremely desolate, uninhabited and terrifying place. It seems there are many people who desire to travel this road to reach a place of precious treasures." [Lotus Sutra, Chapter 7 – On the Conjured City]
>> "There is a guiding teacher, intelligent and wise, with a clear understanding. He knows well the passable and obstructed features of this dangerous road and will lead a group of people who wish to traverse these hardships. But the people he leads along the way become lax and retreat." [Lotus Sutra, Chapter 7 – On the Conjured City]
>> He knows well the passable and obstructed features of this dangerous road: This is an analogy for knowing how to eliminate suffering from deluded karma, how to eliminate ignorance and how to step by step relieve ourselves from fragmentary and transformational samsara. All Buddhas know this completely.
>> The passable and obstructed features: Entering the delusion of deviant views and falling into a state of evil and suffering are called obstructed features. Transcending the Saha World and being able to enter the noble path are called passable features.
>> Since the guiding teacher knows the features of the evil road, he leads the travelers, enabling them to escape danger and difficulties. He guides and enables them to enter the Right Path of Bodhi. Thus, [guiding teacher] is a common term for Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
>> The people: Those of average or limited capabilities who stubbornly cling to the Two Vehicles only practice for themselves. The people he leads: Those who meet harmful friends along the way are enticed to retreat from the Great and take up the Small.
>> Along the way [they] become lax and retreat: Along the way: An analogy for how Small Vehicle practitioners eliminate afflictions to seek their own deliverance from samsara. Though they follow and are transformed by the Buddha, they fear the Great Dharma and delight in and are attached to the Small Vehicle. This is called becoming lax and retreating.
"With wisdom, we listen, contemplate and practice.
With a settled mind, our spiritual aspirations will be proper.
By upholding precepts, we eliminate afflictions;
thus we guard against wrongs and stop evil
and guide people onto a safe and stable path."
In this world, we live in a state of confusion. "How did I get here? Where did I come from? Where will I go in the future? Where will I go from here?" In fact, when we came [to this world] we were unaware, and when we leave we do not understand. We spend our entire lives running around busily. Our life follows the laws of nature, and when the time comes, regardless of our age, it will come to an end. Then is everything over and done with? Let me tell you; it is not. There is definitely karmic cause and effect. We follow this cycle of causes and conditions and experience effects and retribution of suffering lifetime after lifetime. So, we need to have faith; we must awaken our faith. We must believe that all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas come to this world to deliver lost sentient beings.
Not only do Bodhisattvas do this, all Buddhas do too. They come and go among people to point us in the right direction. Those who have faith listen to the teachings and uphold them for their entire life. If we do not have faith, even if the Buddha is right in front of us or a Bodhisattva is by our side, no matter how they teach us the Dharma, we may hear it but not accept it. We listen to it but do not want to accept it. Or, we listen to and accept it, but do not want to persist in upholding it. After a short time, we forget about it. After a short time, our perspective of right faith changes, so we return to the Saha World, to a life of confusion. This is what we unenlightened beings do.
We should earnestly take advantage of [our time in] this world. Since we have come into this world and have listened to the Buddha-Dharma, we must earnestly put our heart into listening, contemplating, and practicing. After listening, we must earnestly contemplate. If we take the Dharma to heart, after we listen, we will earnestly contemplate it. The Dharma is indeed found in all people, matters and things. As for today's people and affairs, when we can apply the teachings we heard early in the morning to the day's affairs, we will be able to dispel our confusion and delusion. Throughout our daily actions, there are many things we do not understand, even in a single plant or a single object. Do we pull up every [stray] plant we see? Actually, there are many useful vegetable seeds and useful grains. If farmers are a little careless, when pulling weeds, instead of pulling out the weeds, they may end up pulling out rice stalks instead.
This comes from not recognizing the plants and trees on the land. If we are able to recognize them, then we will know which are weeds, which are useless plants, so that they can become beneficial fertilizer for our crops. If we recognize them, we know what to pull up and return to the land as nutrients. If we do not recognize them, we will not know which ones to pull up, which ones to remove. Then they will fight over nutrients with the seeds we planted. The land's nutrients will be grabbed up by weeds, and the seeds we want to grow will lack nutrients. Lacking nutrients, the crops we produce will not thrive. This is because we did not recognize them. This is because we did not take care of them. So, although we sow seeds of goodness in the land, we may not be able to recognize or take care of them. This is just like our mind. We should take care of the ground of our minds. Once we sow seeds in this ground, we must take good care of them. When ignorance or discursive thoughts arise, we must quickly eliminate them so this seed of goodness in our minds can remain healthy and strong. Only then will our wisdom-life be able to grow.
Our wisdom-life accompanies us [life after life]. Every one of us has a nature of True Suchness; our nature of True Suchness is our wisdom-life. Our nature of True Suchness is a seed. But layers of ignorance and discursive thoughts have covered that pure nature and snatched away our time. Ignorance and discursive thoughts have taken away our opportunities for developing our wisdom-life. Ignorance and discursive thoughts have taken over our lives. What we use every day are these ignorant, discursive thoughts; this prevents our mind from using a perspective of wisdom to look at things. We only use superficial intelligence and knowledge to handle things; we do not tap into our wisdom to make decisions.
Knowledge and wisdom are different. Intelligence is temporary; it is not stable, just like those weeds. So, we must earnestly "With wisdom, listen, contemplate and practice." As Buddhist practitioners, we must apply our deep faith as we listen to and learn the Dharma. We must earnestly contemplate it. We must use our ear-root and ear-consciousness to listen mindfully. We take it in through our sixth consciousness, then earnestly contemplate it. After contemplating it, we delve further into it. This is "cultivating contemplation." Once it has entered our minds, if we can be in a settled and still state, naturally, wisdom will be in all the actions of our body and mind. Our wisdom will analyze for us the people, matters and things around us.
How should we perceive worldly affairs? How should we analyze the suffering of all sentient beings in the world? How can we adapt to their capabilities to help them resolve their difficulties and relieve their suffering? This requires us to exercise wisdom. So, we listen, contemplate and practice to exercise our wisdom in the world. This way, everyone can be Guanyin Bodhisattva. We often say, "In every person, there is a Guanyin Bodhisattva; in every family, an Amitabha Buddha." In fact, Amitabha signifies infinite radiance. We have a wisdom of infinite light. We have compassion hidden within our minds. If we could exercise both compassion and wisdom, everyone can be Guanyin Bodhisattva. Thus, we must put effort into being mindful.
"With a settled mind, our spiritual aspirations will be proper." Our mind must be settled and still. With a settled and still mind, our spiritual aspirations [will be proper]. Since we have formed aspirations to walk the great, direct Bodhi-path, our thoughts must be correct and proper. So, our minds must sustain this aspiration and keep it steady. Since we formed this initial aspiration, have we remained focused and settled? We should know that the road in this world runs through the wilderness and is filled with danger and difficulties. How can we walk this road successfully? Furthermore, not only must we walk it ourselves, walk it safely and steadily, but we must mobilize others to walk it with us, to go in this proper direction. So, our minds must be settled, our spiritual aspirations proper.
What can we do to have settled minds and proper spiritual aspirations? We must "uphold precepts to eliminate afflictions." Upholding precepts guards against wrongs and stops evil. If our minds are always settled and we are clear on matters and principles, then naturally we will not break the precepts. When we do not violate precepts and our minds are peaceful and settled, then naturally we will not give rise to discursive thoughts. No matter what kind of situation we encounter, if our minds and thoughts are proper, then we will not be influenced by external sounds or conditions. This means that we must regularly strengthen our aspirations and diligently uphold our precepts. Then naturally, the ignorance and afflictions in our minds will be eliminated; new ones will not enter and the old ones are eliminated. This is spiritual practice.
So, we must "guard against wrongs and stop evil." We must guard against committing wrongs again. We have made this mistake once before, which was a big lesson to us. We must not let it happen a second time. We must maintain this mindset of not committing the same wrong twice. We should guard against wrongs and stop evil. "Guide people onto a safe and stable path." We must become someone who delivers people onto a safe and stable path. We must have this mindfulness every day in order to experience the principles of the world.
At this time, in this world, if everyone does not awaken to [the effects of] climate change, if we do not return to the past, the heavens, earth and people will not have peace. In the world, there will be no harmony. Look at the results of human actions; our perspectives and thinking have deviated from the right path, causing our world to be unstable, to experience extremes in its climate.
This is happening in Ningxia, which is part of Mainland China. The average temperature is continuously rising. It has not rained and drought has already spread throughout the region; no rain has fallen, and nothing is growing. Thus the people cannot survive. Already 300,000 people have left that area. Conversely, in Chile, there is also a desert. This is a desert where plants have not grown for a long time. This land would be considered dormant. But all of a sudden recently, all kinds of flowers began blooming there. There are flowers as far as the eyes can see, swaying in the wind. Everyone found this change to be very strange; this is an abnormal occurrence.
Where did the seeds of these flowers come from? There is no telling how long these seeds have remained dormant, how long they have been sleeping underground. Suddenly, there was rain. With rain water, this suddenly occurred on this patch of land; all these flowers grew and blossomed throughout the land. Everyone wondered, "How did these seeds get here?" Fundamentally, this world, this natural world, contains so many principles.
Originally in Ningxia, there were many people living there; there was water and a great expanse of land in which crops could grow. Then that place suddenly suffered a drought for many years. Not one inch of grass would grow. People cannot live without water, so they had no choice but to leave. Look at this land in Chile. It was originally a place where plants did not grow, because it was so dry. Then it rained. So, it became something like an oasis. Flowers and grass sprouted up. This is a great change. This was abnormal weather. I heard them say that there are more than 200 kinds of native flowers that have sprouted up in that place; this is very wondrous. These are the great principles contained within the earth.
Our lives are like this too. In the past there were many things we did not know. Through the Buddha-Dharma, everything was explained to us in detail to help us understand. Listening to the Buddha-Dharma is not just listening to "thus have I heard," or listening to the Buddha tell stories, no. The true Buddha-Dharma is found in how we live. All of the stories that the Buddha told are drawing on the past beyond the past in order to teach us. People's capabilities are such that they love listening to stories from the past. In fact, all around us, we are surrounded by stories every day. What every person experienced yesterday is the story they share today. Every day, everyone is writing their script; every day, everyone is writing their story.
This is just like when [Tzu Chi volunteers] returned from the Philippines to report on two matters. One was Singapore's and the Philippines' Tzu Chi International Medical Associations (TIMA) jointly-held free clinics in Tacloban. They gave a basic report on this. The most important issue was that after Typhoon [Koppu] passed through the Philippines, it had caused a major disaster on the island of Luzon, with severe flooding. The slow pace of this typhoon is something not seen in a long time. The typhoon stopped on the island of Luzon for a period of two full days. There were strong winds and rain in this region north of Manila, the island of Luzon, resulting in a major disaster. In particular, farmers suffered great damage.
They told me that after their three-day free clinic in Tacloban that ended on the 24th, they returned to Manila on the 25th and turned around and left again the next morning, before 6 am, for [the island of] Luzon. When they arrived at the disaster area, everything they saw was covered in mud. So, they quickly assessed things and based on their experience, they quickly gathered local villagers and then split them into three locations to be part of the "cash for work" program. In three days' time, they quickly cleaned up three major disaster areas. Then they looked into distributing disaster relief.
At this time, Tzu Chi volunteers felt that the impoverished farmers had lost their livelihood and were not sure how they would survive. We hoped they could quickly begin farming again. But how many months would it take? There was no way. So, they asked me if we could first give them vegetables seeds and immediately teach the farmers to [grow them] so that in 10 to 20 days, they could sell the vegetables. They were all onion and garlic farmers there. Could we give them these seeds to plant? Of course we can! But we could also do more. Because the [disaster area] was very big, they had only been to three places. They wanted to continue. There were many places they had not reached, many places that cultivated rice.
Because the place had many areas to cultivate rice, they said, "Master, can we distribute this rice for them to use as seeds?" "Of course! Let us do it quickly." They even said, "There are people who have nothing; their homes have flowed away or collapsed. For these people, can we find ways to help them as well?" Hearing them mindfully report this, I was very comforted. This group of Living Bodhisattvas, after Typhoon Haiyan resulted in such a severe disaster, are still caring for those disaster survivors. They just finished holding a free clinic for them. It was originally planned for 3000-plus people, but more than 5000 people were treated.
They also said to me, "Master, everyone wants to go back, because there are still many people who did not receive treatment. Will you allow us to hold another free clinic?" Of course I encouraged them to do so, as long as they had the strength and the manpower to accomplish it. "But right now there is a place with urgent need. You must quickly plan a distribution there. You must start right away." However, the disaster area was really big. The first time they went, they said traveling from one end to the other would take nearly ten hours. Clearly it was a very big region. Presently the places they had reached, that area, took two to three hours of travel. That would still leave seven- or eight-hour trips to cover that vast area affected by the disaster. So, if this wave of volunteers hoped to continue providing relief to more people, they would have to cover this vast area.
This happened because of an abnormal climate. Typhoons usually pass through quickly. Why did it circle there for two days? Thinking about it, the weather nowadays is truly abnormal.
Let us look at the previous sutra passage.
"This is the parable of a 500 yojanas long, dangerous, difficult and evil road. It lies in an extremely desolate, uninhabited and terrifying place. Suppose there are many people who desire to travel this road to reach a place of precious treasures."
The world is just like this, a "dangerous, difficult and evil road." How did we come here? How should we return? Right now, every day, in this space between heaven and earth, in our interpersonal relationships, are we able to safely live through each day? Actually, this "dangerous, difficult and evil road" of life is very long; there are many traps. So, we must be very vigilant. We talk about "self-discipline and reverence" every day. We must be self-disciplined, cautious and reverent, otherwise in this world we will be on a "dangerous, difficult and evil road. It lies in an extremely desolate [place]." It is really a very desolate and wide place, as big as the Three Realms.
It is like that desert in Chile, or the area in Ningxia, which are very open and spacious places. In some places, some unknown time ago, there were 200-plus species of flowers seeds in this land. Clearly, in the distant past, this desert was once an oasis. There were these seeds. But after some time, this place turned into a desert. In the past, Ningxia was [suitable] for people to live; it should have been an oasis. But now it has turned into a desert, and the people must move elsewhere.
We can see the two extremes of these two places. In the past, one was a desert. We know it was a desert. We know in the past the other was a place where people lived; it was probably an oasis. Now the places have reversed. One place has flowers and plants sprouting up, while in the other, people have given up and are emigrating. Think about it; isn't life in this world a "dangerous, difficult and evil road"? Isn't it "extremely desolate [and] uninhabited"? In the past, Chile's desert was desolate and completely uninhabited. Now in the future, will Ningxia also become desolate and completely uninhabited?
This world is truly a "terrifying place." It truly inspires fear; it is a place to dread and fear. We as people living in this world see only a tiny part of it. We cannot see so widely and expansively. The Buddha has the wisdom of the Buddha-eye. He can see widely and expansively. The universe and the lives of all things are completely clear to Him. He clearly understands all ways of life. So, He told us that on this "dangerous, difficult and evil road," there are many people who wish to cross. This means that the human world is very treacherous.
"Suppose there are many people" means suppose there are some people who have awakened, want to engage in spiritual practice and listen to the teachings; [they are those] "who desire to travel this road." When we think of this dangerous path, we already know we must quickly escape. Lifetime after lifetime, we must travel on this path with great caution. "To reach a place of precious treasures," we do not know how many lifetimes we must travel this treacherous path. So, we must be very be mindful and cautious. We must safely travel through it to reach the place of precious treasures. This is what we have said before.
In the next sutra passage, [it says,]
"There is a guiding teacher, intelligent, wise and with a clear understanding. He knows well the passable and obstructed features of this dangerous road and will lead a group of people who wish to pass through these hardships. But the people he leads along the way become lax and retreat."
As we are walking together, along the way we become lax and retreat. So, we need this guiding teacher to lead us. To travel through this dangerous path, we need someone to lead the way. This guiding teacher is "intelligent, wise and with a clear understanding." He has much wisdom and thoroughly understands this road. He knows which place is treacherous and where we should not walk. He knows how to travel to safely pass through this treacherous path; he leads us in this way. "But the people he leads along the way become lax and retreat." Of the people following this guiding teacher, some became lax and retreated on the way. Having become lax, they wanted to retreat. It is telling us that the guiding teacher is very intelligent and wise and can help us safely travel this path. He knows which places are truly dangerous. He reminds us, "Do not deviate. Your every step must by firm and steady as you move forward so you can leave this dangerous path. This is how you walk through this dangerous, difficult and evil road."
He knows well the passable and obstructed features of this dangerous road: This is an analogy for knowing how to eliminate suffering from deluded karma, how to eliminate ignorance and how to step by step relieve ourselves from fragmentary and transformational samsara. All Buddhas know this completely.
This guiding teacher helps us "know well the passable and obstructed features of this dangerous road." They understand where we can pass and where we cannot pass. "That path is blocked, you cannot go through. Come, we must turn toward this other road." We have this kind of guiding teacher who meticulously leads the way for us. So, this is an analogy "for knowing how to eliminate suffering from deluded karma, how to eliminate ignorance." This guiding teacher is guiding us this way. "In order for you to eliminate ignorance, you must have faith that the road I lead you on and the direction that I give you is correct." We cannot doubt, but must walk forward with faith. Only in this way can we walk on a radiant path.
This is "how to eliminate ignorance." He taught us how to eliminate ignorance and delusions, how to eliminate the karma we have created. He taught us this, telling us what we should do and what we should not do. Being clear on right and wrong, we can find a way to eradicate our ignorance and to sequentially and safely advance stage by stage to eliminate fragmentary samsara.
"How to step by step relieve ourselves from fragmentary and transformational samsara." "Fragmentary samsara" refers to the way we come and go in life. We do not know our future, where we will go; that is beyond our control. When we are born into this world, many are born in places of extreme suffering; this is also beyond their control. Or, some may be born in a wealthy place, but because life is impermanent, suddenly they become refugees; all this is beyond their control. We must earnestly eliminate our ignorance so that we know how to lead our lives. As we undergo transformational samsara, in each lifetime, how can we, with the seeds of our minds, earnestly plant seeds in the ground of our minds?
This is like in Chile; we do not know how long ago those native seeds were buried in the ground. Suddenly, over 200 types of flowers appeared. That land is like the ground of our minds; when causes and conditions mature, when the rain falls, with that moisture these seeds will spring up like that. Similarly, our nature of True Suchness also needs Dharma-water. Didn't the Chapter on Medicinal Plants also tell us this? The ground of our minds is parched, so our nature of True Suchness is unable to manifest. Thus, we must put effort [into this]. If we are to end our transformational samsara, we need our nature of True Suchness to manifest. We must be mindful of transformational samsara to be able to cross into extinction, to extinguish all afflictions and deliver ourselves and others.
"All Buddhas know this completely." We ordinary people are unable to understand that this road has many dangerous traps. Unknowing and unaware, we continue walking into these traps. So, there is a guiding teacher to guide us, to carefully lead us. This is because he understands this road and knows where we can and cannot pass.
The passable and obstructed features: Entering the delusion of deviant views and falling into a state of evil and suffering are called obstructed features. Transcending the Saha World and being able to enter the noble path are called passable features.
So, he understands the "passable and obstructed features." "Entering the delusion of deviant views and falling into a state of evil and suffering are called obstructed features." Why would this road be blocked? That is because we already have deviant views and deviant perspectives. So, we constantly have doubts and confusion; without realizing it, we will regress. We do not take the safe road; instead we fall into a dangerous path and cannot find a way out. We have already "entered the delusion of deviant views and fallen into a state of evil and suffering." Once we deviate, that slight deviation takes us far off course; then we become lost in that place. Thus we are obstructed.
"Transcending the Saha World and being able to enter the noble path are called passable features." If we have a guiding teacher to lead us in walking this path, naturally we will be very safe. We will thoroughly understand the principles. Then naturally, from our unenlightened state, we will keep drawing closer to the Bodhisattva-path, continually closer to the state of the Buddha. Then this road will be unobstructed.
He "will lead a group of people who wish to pass through these hardships." For people who are lost, to find their direction they need someone to help lead them, to help them pass through this road, this dangerous path of life and death. We ordinary people are all lost in this way. This guiding teacher has come to lead us, lead those of us who are already lost, by showing us the correct direction with which to pass through this dangerous road.
Since the guiding teacher knows the features of the evil road, he leads the travelers, enabling them to escape danger and difficulties. He guides and enables them to enter the Right Path of Bodhi. Thus, [guiding teacher] is a common term for Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
"Since the guiding teacher knows the features of the evil road, he leads the travelers, enabling them to escape danger and difficulties." A guiding teacher knows the features of this evil road; he truly understands them well. This is like the Buddha. Among the true principles of all things in the universe there is nothing He does not understand and no place He cannot reach. We call Him our guiding teacher. "Kind father of the four kinds of beings and guiding teacher of the Three Realms" refers to Sakyamuni Buddha. So, He came to guide us because He knew the appearances of the evil path. Thus life after life, He come to this world. Ever since beginningless kalpas ago, He has come to the world for one great cause, to open and reveal the way to guide us out of danger.
"He guides people to enter the Right Path of Bodhi." He guided us to the Right Path of Bodhi, to help us walk this smooth and great, direct Bodhi-path. This is what a guiding teacher does; this refers to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who have come to guide us. Bodhisattvas can also be guiding teachers. They already seek the Dharma and transform others. They learn the Dharma from the Buddha and guide sentient beings. This makes them Bodhisattvas. The Buddha wants us all to become Bodhisattvas. So I say, "Everyone is a Guanyin Bodhisattva."
The people: Those of average or limited capabilities who stubbornly cling to the Two Vehicles only practice for themselves. The people he leads: Those who meet harmful friends along the way are enticed to retreat from the Great and take up the Small.
"The people" refers to those who have formed aspirations to engage in spiritual practice. These are Hearers and Solitary Realizers. The Buddha taught according to capabilities. But these people "stubbornly clung to the Two Vehicles and benefited only themselves, those with average and limited capabilities."
"The people he leads…" As they are engaging in spiritual practice, they follow the guiding teacher. But along the way, because this path is very long, they may encounter people who abet them and influence their spiritual aspirations. "Those who meet harmful friends...." When we encounter harmful friends, the things they say to us will lead us to give rise to discursive thoughts and entice us to retreat from the Great and take up the Small. This is the effect some people can have on us. We clearly wanted to walk the Bodhisattva-path and go among people. We clearly wanted to benefit sentient beings. But unfortunately we happened to encounter people who blocked us from going toward the Great Vehicle. This is because our spiritual aspirations were not firm; thus we retreated from our spiritual aspirations. We were those who "retreated from the Great and took up the Small." So, "Along the way [they] become lax and retreat."
Along the way [they] become lax and retreat. Along the way: An analogy for how Small Vehicle practitioners eliminate afflictions to seek their own deliverance from samsara. Though they follow and are transformed by the Buddha, they fear the Great Dharma and delight in and are attached to the Small Vehicle. This is called becoming lax and retreating.
"Along the way" is "an analogy for how "Small Vehicle practitioners eliminate afflictions to seek their own deliverance from samsara." This is as far as they have gone; they do not want to walk to the ultimate state. So, they seek their own deliverance from samsara.
"Though they follow and are transformed by the Buddha, they fear the Great Dharma and delight in and are attached to the Small Vehicle. This is called becoming lax and retreating." Although they follow the Buddha in their practice, they have stopped and remained in that place. In His lifetime, the Buddha taught the Dharma for over 40 years. So, the Buddha, prior to teaching the Lotus Sutra, gave many other teachings. People with average and limited capabilities, finally at the Chapter on Faith and Understanding, began to understand.
So, we must be mindful when learning the Dharma. "With wisdom, we listen, contemplate and practice." Our minds must be stable, and our aspirations must remain positive. "We must uphold precepts to eliminate afflictions." Every day, we must put effort into being cautious, guard against wrongs and stop evil. We must transform ourselves and others; this should be our goal so we can safely reach the ultimate end of the road. Everyone, we must always be mindful.