Altar Sutra: Questions and Answers

A government official named Wei host a dinner and asked the Patriarch to give teachings.
Wei said, “I have heard your teachings. Your teachings are so deep that it is beyond me and I have some doubts to ask you about.”

“If you have any doubts, please ask and I will explain,” the Patriarch replied.

A lot of Buddhist texts function this way, as a Q & A session. Many of the Buddha’s morality teachings exist because his followers spent a lot of time asking him what was and was not okay. So, in this section, Hui-neng is following the Buddha’s example as a teacher.

Q: Are you teaching the same philosophy as Bodhidharma, the first Patriarch?
A: Yes

Q: I was told that when Bodhidharma met Emperor Wu he was asked what merits the Emperor would get for the
work of his life supporting the Dharma by building temples and giving to monks. Bodhidharma’s reply was no merits at all. Can you explain this?

A. Bodhidharma is right. Emperor Wu’s mind is in delusion and he didn’t understand the teachings. The work he did in supporting the Dharma is good and helpful, but shouldn’t be mistaken for generating merit. Merits are to be found in the Dharma Realm. Awakening to the nature of our minds is our goal. When our mental activity functions outisde of delusion, then we can truly understand ourselves.

Essentially the Emperor is wishing to buy Enlightenment. He is a very wealthy man and he doesn’t understand that spiritual awakening can’t be bought. Merit refers to the concept of Karma, the concept that if you are virtuous and wise in this life, then even if you don’t attain Enlightenment in this life, you will be reborn in a better one after death. Sometimes this is taken as a metaphor, sometimes it is taken literally.

Within, let’s keep our minds humble. Without, let’s behave according to virtue.

That we are one with all things is the Truth. Having our minds from from idle thoughts is our goal.
Not to stray from our true nature, and not to delude our minds by going deeper into delusion. These are the things that generate merit.

Do not insult others, but treat everyone with respect. Looking down on others is a sign of delusion.
When our thoughts can work without being held by delusion and function in a straightforward manner, then we are Awakened.

Q. I noticed that some Buddhists recite the name of Amitabha with the hope of being born in the Pure Land. Will you please tell me if this is possible?

Pure Land is another Mahayana sect that was of a similar size to Ch’an at the time. It hasn’t quite made itself as well known in the West as many other Buddhist sects, but there are still many many people who practice it today. Instead of meditation, Pure Land Buddhists chant. They believe this chanting generates merit and helps them to be reborn in a better world after death, a world called the Pure Land.

A. According to the Sutra given by the Bhagavat in Shravasti City for leading people to the Pure Land, it is clear that the Pure Land is not far away. To some it is far and to others it is near. Although the Dharma is uniform, individuals vary in their mentality.
Because we have different degrees of delusion, some understand the Dharma more quickly than others.
The Buddha said, “When the mind is pure, the Buddha Land is also pure.”
When we are in delusion, we might seek to be reborn in the Pure Land. But, to the Enlightened, everywhere is the same.

The Buddha said this about the Awakened: “No matter where they happen to be, they are always happy and comfortable.”

If you really want to be in the Pure Land, I have some suggestions.

Do away with the ten evils and the eight errors.

The ten evils are: Killing, Stealing, Sexual Misconduct, Lying, Slander, Coarse Language, Empty Chatter, Covetousness, Angry Speech, and Wrong Views.

The Eight Errors are the reverse of the Eightfold Path. They are: Wrong Views, Wrong Thought, Wrong Speech, Wrong Action, Wrong Livelihood, Wrong Effort, Wrong Mindfulness, and Wrong Meditation.

If, after that, we can realize our true nature, then we are in the Pure Land. The Pure Land is right here.
If we can only practice the ten good deeds, then we don’t need to worry about being reborn in the Pure Land.

The ten good deeds are: Charity, Morality, Mental Cultivation, Respect, Service, Transfering Merits, Rejoicing in the Merits of Others, Teaching the Dharma, Listening to the Dharma, and Straightening one’s own views.

If you understand the teachings, then you are dwelling in the Pure Land now. If you do not understand, then reciting the chants of Amitabha will not help you.

Here right now, we are in the Pure Land.

Work for Awakening diligently and don’t seek it apart from yourself.

If you consistently perform the ten good deeds, then the Pure Land will manifest.
There is a great light in your mind. It is powerful enough to illuminate you.

When it turns inward it eliminates the three poisons.
Those who wish to engage spiritual training may do it at home. The Pure Land is everywhere, not only in temples and monasteries.

Q. How should we train ourselves at home?

A. I will give you a stanza. If you put it into practice, you will be in the same position as those followers who spend all of their time with me.

For a fair mind, observing the precepts isn’t necessary.

For straightforward behavior, practice in contemplation isn’t necessary.

On the principle of forbearance, we do not fight, even in the midst of a hostile crowd.

By making amends for our mistakes, we get wisdom.

By defending our faults, we show that our minds are not sound.

Practice generosity whenever you can, but generosity alone will not bring Awakening.

Enlightenment is within our minds. There is no reason to look for mystical truths outside of ourselves.

Those who hear this and put it into practice will see the Pure Land manifest.
The Dharma waits for no one.

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About Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg is an independent dharma teacher and Ch'an Adept living in Kansas City. He regularly gives teachings through the Open Heart Project. He also runs the Monday Night Zen Group at the Rime Buddhist Center. His writing has appeared in Lion's Roar, Patheos, Tattooed Buddha, and Elephant Journal. Daniel has taken Bodhisattva Vows and was transmitted the Caodong Ch'an lineage of Master Hsu Yun.

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