Master Says




Shake Off Your Habits to Become a Truly Free Person

Spoken by Supreme Master Ching Hai, Santimen, Pingtung, Formosa,
April 1, 1990 (Originally in Chinese) MP3-CR08

Since ancient times, spiritual practitioners have periodically put aside their daily tasks to practice diligently in groups. This is the way to progress. We transmigrate life after life because we follow the dictates of our habits. If we become a certain kind of person in this lifetime it’s because we’ve been such a person in previous lives. Likewise, we engage in certain types of activities because we performed them in the past. However, if we don’t occasionally renounce our habits and do something new, after we die we’ll have to come back again. The influence will grow stronger and make us repeat the same actions each time we come back.

That’s why Masters or Zen Masters in ancient times occasionally roared at their disciples or suddenly hit them with a cane to shock them and thus temporarily cut them off from their past influences. Only then could the Masters or Zen Masters impart new information to their devotees. It may have been just a little bit, but it was sufficient. Later it would sprout and grow, transforming the disciples into new people.

Similarly, nowadays a Master may command us to do work that we detest or are unaccustomed to in order to break the shackles that bind us like horses or pigeons that always take a fixed route and continue to do so even after they’re set free.

We humans are also like this. Why do we reincarnate life after life? It’s because if we’re in the habit of doing certain things in one lifetime, it will influence us to do the same things when we come back in the next life. We have minds that record all our actions and likes, and replay all these tendencies each time we return, making us engage in the same behaviors and preventing us from going beyond our past level. Sometimes, when we want to do a good or bad action, it’s simply affected by past habits and not due to the fact that we’re really good or bad.

There are times when I ask you to do seemingly meaningless tasks that you may find boring and illogical. But even then you must carry them out according to my instructions. By occasionally doing such work, you break your attachment to longstanding habits and preconceived ideas - those rotten concepts and actions that bind you tightly.

Similarly, we should once in a while put down our habitual work and daily routine to attend retreats for a few days. At these times we let go of everything, become like a child and realize, “There’s nothing to be done in this world.” Even without us, the world won’t go kaput or fall apart. We should bear this in mind.

Now that we’re still in the world, we must continue to work because even though a brake has been applied to the wheel of habit, it has not yet been brought to a complete stop. It will take some time for the wheel to come to a standstill. If we step on the brake too hard, the car will overturn and put us in danger. Since we’re already in this world, we just live on and fulfill our duty. However, we should understand that it’s only the inertial momentum of our past habits that hasn’t come to a complete halt.

Apart from doing things that we’re accustomed to, we also have to add fresh ingredients. Otherwise, we’ll come back and do the same things again like being a carpenter or soldier. Even if we didn’t become a soldier, we’d still retain a domineering, authoritative personality.

Therefore, you shouldn’t listen to your mind all the time. When I tell you to do something you should act accordingly, put your mind entirely into the work and focus on accomplishing it. In this way your past influences will be temporarily cut off. If not, they’ll continue to repeat themselves, and you’ll have to come back again.

While working, we should make no judgments about whether the job is good or bad. Trouble arises when we discriminate or show preferences. As soon as we prefer one task over another the mind immediately begins to record it, saying, “Ah! He likes this job.” And when we come back the next life, this recording will be played back to us. Our predilections account for our transmigration. If we have no preferences in doing our work, we’ll “do without doing” and won’t become bound.

For this reason it’s important for us to periodically drop everything and go into retreat together for several days. This practice reaps the greatest benefits for those who aren’t completely enlightened. Although we meditate at home each day, our minds are still filled with turbulent thoughts and we have to struggle against many habits as well, so it’s not very effective.

Without the guidance of an enlightened Master, we indeed repeat the same responses every day. When someone calls us, we turn and look back; when people scold us, we get upset; when someone looks at us with loving eyes, our hearts throb. (Laughter) We do such silly things throughout our lives, being constantly controlled by external situations, beguiled by our minds and bound by past influences. So we aren’t really free and have no distinct personality! Don’t you think this is pathetic? We’re just like cows led by the nose ring.

So don’t think that we’re already free. At times, we should put down everything and meditate more to allow our innermost Power to emerge and cleanse our past tendencies. Only then can we live in freedom. Otherwise, we’re constrained by these habits and repeat the same actions life after life.

The husband, wife, father, mother, children and friends that we now have were our relatives and friends in the past, or were related to us in some way. For instance, they might have been our bosses in past lives. These individuals who once had a deep influence on us come back in this lifetime to dominate us again. Or, perhaps we dominated them before, so we’ve come back to dominate them again in this life. Past propensities are like an ever-spinning wheel that we simply can’t bring to a standstill.

So we have to add fresh ingredients and actions from time to time to temporarily cut off the patterns recorded in the mind. Only then will the wheel stop and we’ll have a chance to ponder questions such as “Who am I in the first place?” and “Why are we here?” If not, we simply engage in the same work each day, washing clothes, eating, etc. and remain controlled by outer conditions as our lives are filled with misery and suffering and lack meaning. It would be a great pity if we lived like this for a life.

Since times of old, all the sages and saints have been able to realize themselves, understand the past and future and attain enlightenment and liberation because they’ve spent time thinking. In contrast, we’re just like slaves and animals doing whatever other people tell us to do. We turn our heads when we’re called and get angry when scolded. Everyone behaves in exactly the same way and that’s very nonsensical! Now that we’ve had enough of this situation, we need to stand up, revolt against our minds and ask, “Why have I been doing such nonsensical things all my life?”

The Saga of Milarepa - A Master’s Painstaking Efforts to Educate His Disciple

Masters don’t really need their disciples to do any work; they only want to teach them. And although they know their students absolutely abhor certain types of tasks, the Masters still tell them to perform them. Training disciples is truly a painstaking job! For example, you all know the story of Milarepa and you all pity him. In my opinion, however, his Master was the truly pitiable one because Milarepa was very vicious when he was young. Just because someone stole his property, he learned black magic on his mother’s orders so that he could seek vengeance and kill his foe. It took several years to master this magic, but during that time, the thought of killing was constantly in his mind. This is called “intentional killing” and shows that he was very vicious, obstinate and unfeeling. Fear of going to hell arose in him only after he had committed the act and his black magic master told him about the resulting karma. Thus Milarepa sought an enlightened Master only because he feared hell, and not because of the noble ideal pursued by “Arhats” and “Bodhisattvas” like you.

Milarepa’s Master had to educate people like him. Under today’s laws, individuals such as Milarepa would be sentenced to life imprisonment and labor, yet his Master lived with such a criminal every day and even had to civilize him. How was it possible to edify him? Milarepa was full of malice before the murder he committed. His only thought was to take his enemy’s life out of vengeance, but once he did it he was filled with guilt. It was really difficult to enlighten him! Even then, his Master forgave him and didn’t treat him like a murderer but instead patiently cared for him and taught him by every means possible. He was indeed a pitiable Master! Sometimes you can hardly stand living with ordinary benevolent people, let alone a criminal!

Milarepa was a stubborn character and when he killed, he did it thoroughly. He planned it for several years, and made sure that his foes were killed completely. In seeking the Truth, he also persisted to the end. He wouldn’t budge even when his Master rejected him. As soon as he went to his Master’s residence, he put his gear in place, intending to stay there permanently, and even when his Master said, “No” he didn’t care. His Master beat and scolded him daily; commanding him to repeatedly build and demolish houses for many years, yet Milarepa persisted. It’s really difficult to teach such a stubborn person!

Everyone admires Milarepa for his strong, unwavering faith, but I think he was merely obstinate. Even in plotting his killings he persisted to the end. He was a very intractable person in the first place, and would always persevere till the end in whatever he did. How can you educate a person like that? Nonetheless, having found him courageous and penitent, his Master taught him with great patience. Just by making a small offering of repentance, he gave his Master seven years of tribulation.

However, you all know how changeable ordinary humans are, being repentant one day and full of wrath again the next. Milarepa did just a tiny bit of repentance, yet he was salvaged. His Master observed how his stubbornness made him act obstinately without wavering from his preconceived ideas. So the Master used many seemingly irrational methods to break through his willful preconceptions. It was not that his Master needed him to do anything.

The Master had numerous disciples and could have asked someone else to build the house that Milarepa built. So why did he have Milarepa build it alone, demolish it after it was completed and then rebuild it again? The Master told him to carry stones up a hill to build a house, and later asked him, “Who ordered you to build it?” This question was intended to confuse Milarepa about his habitual stubbornness. When reading the scriptures, you should develop a comprehensive understanding to get the whole picture instead of just browsing through them unmindfully and thinking, “Oh! Milarepa really had very strong faith! Oh! Milarepa was really pitiful!” But you don’t realize who the truly pitiful one was.

Enlightened Masters are merciful at heart and promptly render help when they find a person expressing a little regret or yearning for the Truth. You see, Milarepa made very small gifts to his Master, offering only half of the token amount of gold dust he had and keeping the other half for himself because he thought his Master was greedy for hand-outs. So, he presented only half of the gold dust he had. You can see how “sincere” he was! Milarepa was going to live in his Master’s place, eat there, drink there, sleep there and learn the Truth, yet he made only half an offering.

Then to let Milarepa know he wasn’t a greedy man, his Master immediately discarded the gold dust. So, in fact, Milarepa made no offering. His Master repeatedly asked for offerings day and night just to have an excuse to scold him and refuse to impart the Method to him because the time had not yet come for Milarepa; his mind was still immature. We know this just by observing his behavior in making only half an offering. It was a small quantity of gold dust yet he “saved” half of it for himself. Later, he complained that his Master refused to impart the Method to him, but the True Method is not to be imparted so easily! You can’t just come in and force a Master to impart the Method to you. It is similar to a wealthy person; he is free to give his money to anyone he wants. No one can force him, because the money is his.

Milarepa was a very headstrong person but his Master was very good, being extremely patient, teaching him arduously for seven years, waiting until he matured and then imparting the Method to him. Since Milarepa was exceptionally stubborn by nature, his Master did not allow him to live continuously in the same cave and made him move to a new one after a time. Such asceticism is not the appropriate approach to spiritual practice for everyone. So don’t think that we can attain the Truth simply by practicing in the way Milarepa did. This is nonsense! Our personalities are different than his!

For instance, Shakyamuni Buddha didn’t need to practice so extremely because He was already merciful at heart and felt empathy for others who were suffering. So He didn’t have to go through such torment. His spiritual progress was smooth and rapid except for a certain period when He blindly followed an ascetic regime out of ignorance. He had found many people practicing asceticism and knew no other way. It was only afterwards that He realized it was wrong to engage in such techniques.

So don’t wonder why I never tell you to practice ascetically like Milarepa, but instead allow you to pitch tents here at Santimen and have fun in the water. In the daytime, I even let you take shelter and hang up your hammocks to sleep, rest or meditate. You meditate more only in the evening. Since we have mountains and rivers here, I let you enjoy them by the way, practicing spiritually and having fun at the same time.