Zen Buddhism often talks about the three stages of spiritual cultivation. At the first stage, an ordinary person sees a mountain as mountain and a lake a lake. An ordinary person will feel happy upon seeing a beautiful mountain but upset upon seeing an ugly one. The mind of an ordinary person will be affected by the external environment. An ordinary person will feel happy upon seeing a beautiful lake, but upset upon seeing an ugly one with murky and filthy water. Our old Singapore River was filthy and stinky. When one saw it in the past, he would feel very uncomfortable. That is the mentality of an ordinary person. No one is spared before he embarks on the path to enlightenment. All ordinary folks are in this stage, no matter how smart he is, be it a president or a bagger - it makes no difference. As long as you are still bound by the misconception of the notion of “I”, your mind will be affected by your surroundings.
At the second stage, you have started doing your spiritual cultivation. Initially, you must observe lots of precepts, refraining from the negative conducts and abiding by the Five Precepts. You must be bound by the precepts at the initial stage and do the Ten Virtous Acts. In order to transform from an ordinary person to a saint, you must uphold the Five Precepts and do the Ten Virtous Acts. Otherwise, you will forever remain an ordinary person in the first stage. As long as you do not discard your self-importance, you will forever be stranded in the Six Realms of Existence.
Precepts are very crucial. You must start from observing the precepts. There are many precepts in the Hinayana practice and a greater number in the Mahayana practice, and even greater number in the Vajrayana practice. If you want to attain the ultimate enlightenment, you must observe the precepts. You might ask, “Can I not abide by the precepts?” The answer is “No!” We were born with the three poisons of lust, hatred and ignorance deeply ingrained in us due to our karma. Our negative propensities are so strong that we can easily fall into the Three Lower Realms (animal, hell being and hungry ghost), if we are not protected by the precepts. Besides, at this stage, a rigorous practice is a necessity. Without rigorous practice, you will never stand a chance to break free of the cyclic existence. At this stage, you have already started doing your spiritual cultivation, and you will now see a mountain not as a mountain and a lake not as a lake. You have broken away from the old mindset and perception of an ordinary person and see the world in a different light. The second stage can last an awfully long period, up to many lifetimes or even eons; you might not realize that you have been practicing for a long time. In the Hinayana, this stage can last billions of years, even as long as three big eons. This is just the preliminary practice of the second stage.
Take a look at how Saykamuni Buddha attained His enlightenment. In his past life, he even offered himself to a hungry tiger because he already attained the state of “selflessness”. Take a look at Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara who readily gave up His eyes to someone else! “A mountain is not a mountain, and a lake is not a lake!” To Him, eyes were not “eyes” - they were not “His”. He would give His eyes to you if you want them. Now you have come to the later part of the second stage which is extremely difficult only a few can reach. Most of you can only reach the earlier part of the second stage, which is to observe the precepts and do the virtuous acts. How will you be able to give up your wealth when others request it? Or give up your house, car, wife, children, etc.? Will you give up all your possessions, your life? Although the advance practice in the second stage is of extreme difficulty, it is not the ultimate attainment yet.
Finally, you must enter the third stage, where you will see a mountain as mountain and a lake as lake once more. If you continue to persevere on observing the precepts, you will forever remain in the second stage where you will see a mountain not a mountain and a lake not a lake. You will just be a special practitioner different from others; you will appear to be a sublime looking deity being worshipped in a shrine, at the most. You will not be able to walk into the crowd and mingle with them, with the ultimate aim of guiding them onto the path to enlightenment. If you want to help the sentient beings, you must return to the state of seeing a mountain as mountain and a lake as lake once more, like the rest. Of course, by now you have already become a different person in the third stage, different from what you were in the first stage. Regardless of whether the mountain or lake is good or bad, it makes no difference to you - you will not be discriminative now. You have become a happy person, immersed in great joy in a state where you will see a mountain as mountain and a lake as lake once more.
Basically, when you have reached this stage of cultivation, you can break free of the precepts – you can “transgress” the precepts. Like the story told in the Mahā-vaipulya-buddhâvatasaka-sūtra, you could even become a prostitute and offer yourself to any man who wants you, in order to help him enter the path to enlightenment. You can do anything you want and offer anything you wish, for you have already surpassed the conceptual mind of life-and-death, and the discriminative and antagonistic views. You will appear crazy but, in fact, you have truly attained the state of enlightenment. Many of the enlightened Tibetan masters were accomplished practitioners of the Great Perfection (Dzogchen), who lived like animals in filthy places such as a garbage-dumping ground or a latrine. They appeared to be lunatics but, in fact, they are the accomplished masters! The real lunatics are different because they are mentally disordered, unable to tell the difference between good and bad, clean or dirty; they are unable to spiritual practice nor help other sentient beings, let alone being accomplished in spiritual attainment. Those who have attained the third stage of cultivation are different - they are superior, accomplished and non–discriminative. They are fully aware of the differences between good and bad, clean and dirty, but they are just not affected by the differences. They are fine with what you give or not give. They are not bothered by your scolding or teasing. The third stage is a very superior level of attainment most difficult to achieve.
We must walk the path to enlightenment one step at a time. Zen Buddhism has its danger of being reduced to mere “pet phrases of enlightenment”. One might just end up having an empty claim of “I am a Buddha.” If you are not a truly accomplished practitioner and yet you choose to do something against the Dharma, you will fall! It is pointless for you to simply claim that “I am a Buddha!” You will fall because you have not truly attained the state of Buddhahood. So, you had better start from the second stage and abide by the precepts! Otherwise, you will get yourself into trouble.
You might say that “I can do anything. I can kill!” Alright, then I will give you a knife to kill and see if you will be spared from the universal law of cause-and-effect. Unless you have truly attained enlightenment, like Guru Padmasambhava who could deliver the souls of those He killed immediately to the Western Blissful Pure Land, you had better keep the knife away. We had better walk the path to enlightenment one step at a time, starting from the Hinayana, progressing gradually to the Mahayana, and finally the Vajrayana. A gradual approach is a safer approach
Do not be mistaken that you could truly understand the quintessential teachings of Zen Buddhism through the mere intellectual study of Zen books. In the past, there were many Zen practitioners who expounded Zen without truly understanding it’s true meaning. Grand Master has written nearly 10 books on Zen by now, in order to help us understand the ultimate teachings. However, so what if you have intellectually understood the ultimate teachings? It is pointless as long as you are unable to apply the ultimate teachings in your daily conduct! It is more important to be able to apply the ultimate teachings in our conduct than having a mere intellectual understanding. Both pet phrases and intellectual understanding are inadequate - you will still fall unless you are truly enlightened. So, we had better take it one step at a time - walk the path slowly to break free of the cyclic existence eventually.
When you truly break free of the cyclic existence, like that mentioned in the Diamond Sutra, you can discard all the teachings including the precepts, cultivation, meditation and mantras. They are like a boat ferrying us from one shore to another . When we reach the other shore, we should not carry the boat along on our back anymore - that will be meaningless and it will become a burden instead. A boat will become useless when we reach the shore. A boat must be discarded after crossing the river. Another word, when we have truly accomplished our practice, we should discard all the doctrines and precepts. However, you cannot do so before reaching the other shore. Without the boat, you cannot cross the river but you will get drown in the river instead. As long as we are still practicing in the Causal Stage, we will still need the doctrines, the precepts, the practice, the meditation, the mantra, praising the Buddha, the Six Perfections, etc. One day, when we reach the other shore, we can then discard the boat. Otherwise, we need to hold on to it tight!
Now, while we are holding tight to our boat, we might be seeing someone else discarding the boat. We must not criticize others for discarding the boat because we may not understand their true ability. There are many people who criticize Grand Master for drinking alcohol, dancing, eating meat but not vegetarian food, etc. Not only outsiders criticized Grand Master, even his own students followed likewise, “Why did he do that?” The outsiders said, “Your teacher does not look a bit like a monk! A monk must abide by the numerous precepts, but he does not!” Sometimes, Grand Master wears normal attire instead of a monk robe when he goes out of the temple. Others saw it and criticized him, “How can a monk like you wear normal attire? You don’t have the serious mannerism of a monk.” Actually, the person did not know that Grand Master is a truly accomplished practitioner. A truly accomplished practitioner can wear anything, be it a monk robe, normal attire or nothing – he is still an enlightened Buddha. When you are not a Buddha yet, no matter how serious you wear, you are just an ordinary person!
So, we must not criticize others before knowing who he really is. The greatest taboo of a practitioner is to criticize others based on what you think you know – you can be wrong! This is my greatest taboo too. I do not criticize others but merely sing praises of them. If I happen to see any actions of you against the Dharma, I will just think to myself that “Maybe you have already attained enlightenment. You may be breaking away from the precepts for the sake of helping the sentient beings. I may not understand it yet. How could I simply criticize you? If I do so, I might just be committing a great sin through my speech!” No matter what, we must not criticize others. We should not commit bad karma through our speech but to maintain a pure speech at all times. When we criticize others, we are actually criticizing ourselves for being non-accommodating. So, instead of committing bad karma through our speech, we would rather train our own mind and practise with vigour, which will be a more meaningful act.
A discourse given by Acho Rinpoche on 26-10-2010