One day my master, Sheng Yen, and I were walking through the forest at his retreat center in Pine Bush, upstate New York. It was spring, and there had been snowmelt and lots of rain. A normally placid stream that was easily crossed had turned into a raging torrent.

“Do you think the river god will open up this stream for us so we can walk across?” Sheng Yen asked.

“Shifu, let’s leap over!” It was a beautiful spring day, and I was a young, impetuous monk who thought I could do anything. And I knew that Sheng Yen enjoyed this aspect of my character, so I was free with my words. “Keep your impulsive energy and turn it into bodhicitta,” he would tell me. Bodhicitta is the motivation to awaken all sentient beings.

We studied the muddy, rushing stream. “The bodhisattva path is not as easy as you think,” Sheng Yen said. There was a wistfulness about him—a sadness. The retreat center was experiencing a lot of difficulties, and I felt the weight of these problems as he told me the following story, which might have been a Buddhist folktale he had heard when he was a child.

There was once a Brahmin arhat [one who has attained enlightenment] who every day went to hear Buddha teach. On his way, he had to cross a river, and so he’d call out to the river god, “Babu, open up! I want to walk over.” The river god paid respects to the arhat, and the arhat likewise paid respects to the river god, and the river god opened a way for the arhat to walk through. The arhat went to see the Buddha and then returned home, again exchanging greetings with the river god, who opened a path through the flow.

bodhicitta intention
Illustration by Irene Rinaldi
Vowing to fulfill omniscience,
To forever deliver all beings,
That aspiration is vast as space,
Producing virtues equal to the cosmos
The Flower Ornament Sutra

This ritual went on day after day, the same exchange of words over and over, until one day when the river god became upset and went to complain to the Buddha. “He keeps calling me Babu,” said the river god. “Babu” is how you address a servant, someone low-class and insignificant.

The Buddha asked the arhat to meet with the river god. “Have you been respectful to the river spirit? Have you looked down on him?” the Buddha asked the arhat.

“That wasn’t my intention,” said the arhat. “If I made him feel that way, I’m very sorry for it, and I apologize.”

“You see?” the Buddha said to the river god. “He apologized to you and he is sincere. It is just his habit, as he is from the Brahmin caste,” the Buddha said.

After he finished telling the story, Sheng Yen said, “I don’t think the river god will help us today.” We returned to the retreat center.

Related: How to Be Faultless

Several days later, Sheng Yen took up this theme of the way our habits shape our behavior during a dharma talk in the Chan hall. He told a story about Ananda:

Once the Buddha was taking a walk with Ananda in the marketplace. The market was done for the day—the vendors had left and the stalls were empty. The Buddha saw some discarded banana leaves, which the vendors had used to wrap up their goods, on the market floor. The Buddha asked Ananda to pick one up and inspect it.

“Can you see anything inside the leaf?” the Buddha asked.

“No,” Ananda replied.

“What do you smell?”

“Salted fish.” Ananda picked up another leaf. “Jasmine flower,” he said.

“What does this mean?” the Buddha asked. Ananda, as usual, was perplexed.

“You cannot see the fish or the flowers,” the Buddha explained. “But you can smell the things that are left over, the residuals.”

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Sheng Yen used the word xi qi in Chinese to refer to these residuals. Xi qi can be translated as “smell habit,” but qi also means “energy.” Sheng Yen was drawing from the complex matrix of Buddhist philosophical teaching on intention and karma, and he was pushing us, as his students, to carefully investigate our own habits and suppositions.

Karma is a type of energy. We cannot conceive of karma: it’s too complicated. An analogy might be a seed from a mango. It drops and produces a mango tree. Three years later that mango tree produces one hundred mangoes, which all drop and produce trees that also bear fruit and then produce a thousand trees, and so on. One seed or one very small action can produce a vast multiplicity of effects. The Mahayana view is that even though I may not have had the intention to disrespect or harm you, if I do, then I have created karma. With the right view, we can see many of the problems in our relationships and the world from this perspective.

As Sheng Yen told this story, I again sensed the wistfulness in him that I had felt when we were together by the rushing stream.

“We all still have lots of habits; we are imperfect, and we should not take things too hard,” Sheng Yen said. He looked at me. His eyes were sad with a kind of helplessness. I thought he would go on and say more. But he simply said, “That’s all for tonight,” and he rose from the cushion on which he sat and walked slowly into the dark passage behind the dais.

Related: Remembering Master Sheng Yen

These stories have recently returned to me as I have been in the midst of my own troubles. Sheng Yen was cautioning us against judging the actions of others. He was saying that often our habitual tendencies produce unintentional effects, and that we have to be mindful of this in our relationships. The subtle but powerful filter of xi qi is pervasive.

I have often thought of the way Sheng Yen looked at me that night in the Chan hall. The feeling it conveyed was more than that of an older man to a younger man, more even than that of master to disciple. It was the way a father might look at a son. In the midst of his own troubles and challenges, he knew that I would face difficulties too—that they were inevitable, and that there was nothing he could do to prevent what was coming.

I want to tell him now, as I write this, that I am okay. The energy for bodhicitta is still there inside me. I feel it moving, welling up. And I will never give it up.

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