Since an early age I have accumulated knowledge,
Studying the sutras, sastras, and commentaries.
Discriminating between names and forms without rest,
I only troubled myself counting the sands in the sea.
I was severely reproached by the Tathagata:
What is the benefit of counting others’ treasures?
I realized the futility of my dalliance;
For many years I busied myself in the world in vain.
People accumulate a past in two major ways: personal experiences from everyday life, and knowledge from teachers, books and other sources. Experience and intellectual learning encompass a person’s world view; and although it seems it should be the other way around, it is the intellectual discriminations fostered by learning which are more difficult to drop than direct experiences of life. Bad habits which accumulate from everyday experience may harm you and a small group of people around you, but intellectual views can affect and influence entire populations. Through the media, your ideas can reach millions of people.
An ancient Chinese proverb says, “He who steals another’s belongings is a thief, but he who steals a country is a king. He who kills another is a murderer, but he who kills thousands is a great hero.” A person who steals power and takes over a country does not do so because of personal habits. He is driven by a powerful world view.
Intellectual knowledge is powerful; therefore, it is difficult to get rid of. Yung-chia admits that he too amassed enormous amounts of knowledge from sutras and sastras before meeting the Sixth Patriarch. The Buddhist tradition encourages people to study sutras and sastras. For ordinary people, studying is good, and it can be productive. But for a practitioner seeking enlightenment, studying can be a problem. When Yung-chia met Hui-neng, he let go of everything that he had ever studied.
Yung-chia says that pursuing the practice through study is like trying to count every grain of sand on the ocean’s floor. Studying Buddhist literature is an endless endeavor. The Buddha taught for forty-nine years, yet he likened his preaching to the amount of sand one can fit under one’s fingernail, and he said that the part he did not lecture on encompassed all the dust in the world. Preaching can go on forever. Attempting to study it would be a waste of time.
The study of Buddhist sutras is good. The word sutra means stringing things together, like flowers in a garland or pearls in a necklace; but if you cling to the written word, and study instead of practice, then it is like counting another’s treasure. A child who goes into a bank and sees a teller counting stacks of money, might exclaim, “Wow! That person is rich.” The child does not realize the teller is counting other people’s money.
Once, a man visited the Sixth Patriarch, but he did not prostrate to show his respect. Hui-neng asked, “What is your practice?”
The visitor said, “I recite the Lotus Sutra. I’ve done so over six hundred times.”
Hui-neng replied, “Six hundred copies of the Lotus Sutra inside you? That’s heavy! No wonder you can’t prostrate.”
The visitor thought about it, and then said, “It really is a heavy load. What can I do?”
Hui-neng advised, “From now on, be a useless person, with nothing to do except practice. Forget about whether or not you’re good at it. Forget your pride and ability.”
It would be best to forget any good experience that you might have had in your practice, or in a previous retreat. Do not call up memories of past experiences, and do not pay attention to those that appear in your mind. If you have a good experience during this retreat, let it pass. If you have never had a good experience, do not worry about it, and do not set your mind on achieving something good, otherwise you will be carrying a heavy weight on your back. At the same time you shoulder your past, you will be grasping for something imaginary in your future. If you practice with all this weight, you will flatten like a pancake.
Since it is hard to just let go of everything, immerse yourself wholeheartedly in the method of practice, and realize that there is nothing else.
If you spend all your time analyzing sutras and sastras, or remembering and rehashing retreat experiences, you will never accomplish or complete anything. Do you know the story of the monkey in the peach orchard? A monkey climbed the first tree and plucked a peach. Then it saw another peach, so it put the first one under its arm and reached for the second one. Then the monkey saw another and another, and it kept putting the one it had just picked under its arm. Finally, it picked every peach from every tree in the orchard. The monkey thought it had all of them, but when it looked, all that remained was the one in its hand.
During the retreat, you may find yourself acting like a greedy monkey: “Oh! I’ve got something. What’s that? There’s more? What else can I get?” If you greedy monkeys do not come to your senses, you will pick tree after tree clean, and in the end collapse from exhaustion, without having eaten a single peach.
Look into yourself to see if you are a greedy monkey. The best thing to do is pick one peach and eat it slowly, carefully, mindfully. What peach am I talking about? The peach you pick and eat is the method of your practice.
— The Sword of Wisdom by Master Sheng-Yen (page 192-195)