Let it go and be spontaneous,
Experience no going or staying.
Accord with your nature, unite with the Way,
Wander at ease, without vexation.
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING in practice is to be natural and spontaneous. Being natural does not mean neglecting everything. It requires careful attention. In meditation, you should sit in a natural posture and use your mind in a natural way. Sitting in a natural posture means sitting just right. If you are comfortable when you first assume the sitting posture, even if pains develop in your legs later on, that is still natural. It is unnatural, however, to sit bent over or leaning to one side, or tipping your head back. A natural posture should follow the demands of your physiology. It is not natural to tighten your stomach muscles or to straighten your back by protruding your chest.
To use your mind in a natural way means to avoid trying to control it. The more you try to control your mind, the more stray thoughts will come up to bother you. In fact, the very fear of stray thoughts is another stray thought. Therefore, if you have many stray thoughts, consider it a natural phenomenon and do not despise them. But on the other hand, if you completely give in to a train of wandering thoughts, that is not correct either. What is the best approach? Pay close attention to the method. If you do that, stray thoughts will be kept to a minimum. It is not that they will not arise, but you will not worry about them. If you are really paying attention to the method, you will be aware of a stray thought as soon as it arises. When it comes up, just let it go. Do not be afraid that another thought may follow it. That fear is an extra stray thought. It is just like a person who is carrying a stack of bowls. If someone says to him, "Be careful! You're going to drop them!" he will drop them. But if nobody said anything, he would just keep going.
Do not fear failure. Whatever happened in the past is past; do not worry about it happening again. Before you meet with success, failure is natural and necessary. As a baby learns to walk, it keeps falling down. Is this failure? Throughout our life we go through similar processes: going to school, pursuing a career, practicing Ch'an. After my first book, someone said to me, "Now you're a success." I said, "No. That book was a failure. I would write it much better if I had to do it again." It is the same with practice; there is never a successful conclusion. When you are working hard, failure is natural. If you have never failed, you have never tried.
ON THE OTHER HAND, you should not have a defeatist attitude, thinking: "As long as I'm going to fail, let me fail." According to Buddhism, nothing can be a success. If you were elected president of the United States, would that be a success? Later on, you would most likely be criticized as a failure. Even President Lincoln would probably consider himself a failure. This is natural. It is when you do not feel successful that you put in the effort. When you no longer need to make an effort, that is success, or liberation. At that point, there are no more vexations. Nevertheless, you have neither thrown away vexations nor grasped liberation. If you want to hold on to enlightenment and keep away vexations, that is not the true natural state.
But to follow your own nature, in this sense, is not the same as following your personal habits or whims, as in the expression "be natural." Nature here refers to your self-nature, or Buddha-nature. Some people think that one can become a buddha through meditation. This is wrong. The potential for Buddhahood is within your own nature. If it were true that Buddhahood depended on meditation, then if you stopped meditating after becoming a buddha, you would become a common person again. The objective of practice is to be in accord with the natural way, so that your true nature can manifest itself. Just practice according to the methods taught by the Buddha and do not worry about being a success. The Heart Sutra says, "There is no wisdom and no attainment." Although practice may be trying, even physically painful, if your heart is carefree, nothing will bother you. A carefree approach does not mean not caring about how you practice; it means considering anything that happens as natural. There may be some pain, but there will be no suffering. There is nothing in your mind that you cannot put down.
Master Sheng-Yen is the Resident Teacher at the Ch'an Meditation Center in Elmhurst, New York. Excerpted from Faith in Mind: A Guide to Ch'an Practice by Master Sheng-Yen, reprinted with permission from Dharma Drum Publications.
Image: Bodhisattva, late Sui Dynasty, China, gray marble. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr.