Recently a prominent celebrity declared that, in terms of morality, he was beyond reproach—faultless. This stimulated much public discussion. My thought was that this kind of declaration can be viewed from various perspectives. There is no need to doubt the statement that this person has not done anything illegal in his life and need not feel guilt toward others. He seems to have a clear conscience. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with saying that he has no faults. However, from the Chan perspective, everyone has faults. There is no need to be afraid of having faults, because knowing we have them can help us to improve. If you considered yourself perfect, would you still want to meditate and cultivate your practice? Therefore, from the perspective of practice, to hope to have no faults is to realize that you do have faults, and that in itself is to be faultless. Not being aware of your own faults is the greatest fault. But if you are aware and make adjustments immediately, you can then be faultless at all times and everywhere.

It is rare to have no regrets throughout the course of one’s life, from youth to old age, but the greatest regret is to feel remorse, yet fail to repent. If one has no regrets and no need to repent, then one is a natural-born sage; but in our world of samsara, there are probably few such sages. Out of religious faith, the followers of Jesus and Shakyamuni Buddha perceive them as being faultless; otherwise they would not be considered great saints. However, in terms of mental concepts and actions, were Jesus and Shakyamuni without fault since birth? That depends on one’s perspective.

From youth to buddhahood, Shakyamuni progressed through practice from an ordinary person to a buddha. When Shakyamuni sat under the Bodhi tree prior to his enlightenment, he encountered many obstacles. Even before he left home to practice the path, he encountered difficulties. From the viewpoint of faith, these were only manifestations of his being a bodhisattva rather than real difficulties. However, from the standpoint of practice, I believe he really did have some difficulties.

During an international conference, Master Cheng Yi from Taiwan met the Panchen Lama, and he asked the lama, “People refer to you as a living buddha. Are you a buddha?” The Panchen Lama said, “People may consider me a living buddha, but I am the same as everyone else.” Is there any contradiction in the Panchen Lama’s response? The fact is that from their perspective as believers, people see the Panchen Lama as a living buddha.

Buddhism believes that every human being, and in fact all sentient beings, have buddhanature; this means we can all become buddhas. This is Buddhist faith and Buddhist belief. But if you tell someone who isn’t a Buddhist that even cats, dogs, mosquitoes, and flies have buddhanature, would they believe you? Certainly not! If you tell them, “You have the nature of a buddha and will become a buddha,” would they believe that? They will probably shake their head and say, “Don’t joke with me. I’m only an ordinary person; I’m not interested in becoming a buddha.” However, after learning Buddhism, one knows that this is faith, and believes one has buddhanature and can become a buddha.

Therefore, it is possible to feel that one has no faults. Why? Because after discovering that one’s ideas and behaviors are imperfect, if one always immediately corrects them, this is maintaining a state of faultlessness. We should face our own faults at all times, realizing our faults and hoping we will not have any more shortcomings from now on. Maybe next time we may still have faults, but that is another issue. At least in this present moment, we can return to the state without fault, the zero state. If one is able to do so in the process of practice, then one is making progress at all times.

To declare, “I want to return to the state of faultlessness” is just lip service unless you are willing to make an effort. But if you constantly try to minimize your faults of body, mind, and speech, the need to return to the faultless state will diminish. If you feel shame and you repent after making mistakes, you are already helping yourself decrease your faults to zero.

“Where Is the Meaning? – The Past and Present No. 1.” Oil on canvas, d. 100 cm, 2013. Courtesy of Art + Shanghai Gallery and Xiang Guohua

Methods for Returning to the No-fault State

I have described the concept of returning to a faultless state. Here are the methods: If our mind is disturbed, tempted, influenced, and provoked by the environment, we seldom think it is our own problem, so we blame the outside world. For example, if someone provokes us we say he is being unreasonable; if someone tempts us we may think he is disturbing us. But exactly who is being provoked, disturbed, and tempted? It’s us! But why should we be disturbed, annoyed, and tempted? Therefore, we should constantly turn our thoughts inward to see why we are disturbed. If we fail to look inward, then we certainly will be disturbed, tempted, and provoked by the environment; our emotions will fluctuate between excitement, happiness, anger, and agony. Whether it is delight or agony, it is our own reaction that arises from being stimulated or disturbed by the environment.

People like me cannot practice. How can anyone as bad as me practice?

Recently, I had a hundred short articles that were serialized in Taiwan’s United Daily News. Mr. Zhu Deyong drew cartoons to accompany the series. In one picture, he drew a turkey whose body was grossly fat with many sores; its head and eyes were infected with disease, and its legs were in the shape of two very big mouths. This picture, which depicted greed, was very painful to look at. A mind of greed is a mind that suffers—after getting what one lusts for, one still suffers for fear of losing it; and one suffers even more if one cannot get what one wants. Endless greed is itself a poison, a kind of abnormal state, and the same is also true for anger and ignorance. The antidote is to realize that these poisons are addictive to the mind, and that one should return to the practice method. Do not allow yourself to be deterred or affected by these poisons.

“Where Is the Meaning? - The Past and Present No. 6.” Oil on canvas, d. 100 cm, 2012. Courtesy of Houg Collection.
“Where Is the Meaning? – The Past and Present No. 6.” Oil on canvas, d. 100 cm, 2012. Courtesy of Houg Collection.

When you suffer because you cannot get what you desire, or get enough of it, tell yourself that this is a poison that is making you ill, and that you should adjust your mind-set to be happier, more relaxed and at ease. Do not be moved by these thoughts and vexatious attitudes; instead, realize that they are caused by your mind being influenced by the environment. Know that as long as your mind is not moved by the environment, you can always and anywhere return to a faultless condition.

When suffering from vexations, first realize that they arise because of our addiction to the poisons of the mind—greed, anger, and ignorance. These addicting poisons have been there since time without beginning. Therefore, it is not easy to eliminate them. It is very difficult to remove an addiction to mind-altering drugs, and even harder to remove habits that one has had since time without beginning. But as long as one has the heart to do it, with hard work on the methods of practice it is still possible to remove these poisons.

To repent is to face one’s faults . . . and try one’s best not to make the same mistake again.

A follower who used to enjoy eating meat, and has since stopped eating it, asked me, “What else should I give up?” I said, “Due to our many habits, there are so many things we should give up, that I cannot tell you what you should give up next. But you can come to our meditation camp, and afterward you will know what to give up!” When troubles and confusion arise out of vexations, just return to zero—the method. Remind yourself that this is not what you should have, not what you should accept, and not what you should be moved by. Once you notice a thought that you shouldn’t have (“I noticed it!”), immediately return to zero. Train your mind to recognize when an unwholesome thought comes up, then immediately return to the method, and keep on doing that. This is the method of Chan: “Do not be concerned about wandering thoughts; simply return to the method.”

Repentance, not remorse

Some people try to conceal their mistakes or avoid guilt by defending themselves; others claim innocence while blaming others; and then there are those who feel constant remorse for what they have done. During a Chan retreat, one of the participants could not stop crying and could no longer meditate after I spoke about repentance.

He said: “I cannot meditate anymore, I am going home!” I asked: “Why?”

He said: “People like me probably cannot practice. How can anyone as bad as me practice? I feel I should die and not live in this world. I am so bad I cannot practice, and I cannot succeed in my practice.”

I told him: “There is a saying from the sutras, ‘As soon as the butcher puts down his cleaver, he immediately becomes a buddha.’ ” That is the attitude we should have in our practice. Putting down the cleaver means to have a mind of repentance and to make amends. As long as we realize and admit our mistakes, let them go, and make corrections immediately, that is practice.

I asked him: “Are you killing, robbing, setting things on fire in the Chan hall?”

He said: “No!”

I said: “When did you do those bad things?”

He said: “Very long ago. I just remember doing many bad things, so I feel very guilty.”

I told him later: “In practice, we should repent rather than have remorse. To repent is not to feel remorse, but to face one’s faults, realizing they are faults, and try one’s best not to make the same mistake again. If one does that, one is already making amends. Remorse is walking into a pit of fire, and repentance is walking out of the pit of fire.” He felt happy after hearing this and did not cry anymore, and felt that he did quite well at the Chan retreat. In the past, his psychiatrist always helped him analyze his problems. I advised him to rely on himself to discover his own faults, to face and understand them and to let them go. Facing your problems, accepting them, dealing with them, and then letting them go is the best method to return to a faultless state.

From a dharma talk given at DDM Chan Meditation Camp, January 20, 1996. Published in Liberated in Stillness and in MotionDharma Drum Publishing Corp, 2016.