Since I became a monk, Daily Chants for Chan has been the basis of my everyday chanting and hymns singing at morning and evening services, which has quite a gradual calming effect on me, replacing the secular songs I used to know. Nowadays, even if I do hear them occasionally, my ears seem to know when to shut down in time to avoid smearing my mind.
Last month, however, I was browsing in a bookstore one day. The nearby music section was playing Teresa Cheung’s “Knowing You Is Karma” sung back in the 1960s. Not only was the tune nostalgic, but its lyrics seemed to contain some philosophical musings over the joys and sorrows in life, and my ears immediately perked up.
The last line of the lyrics went, “Being born in this world is being fleeting dust”, where the words “fleeting dust” left a deep impression on my mind, because its meaning is close to something in a certain Buddhist scripture as I remember. At the time, though, I was unable to recall which.
Yesterday, I suddenly remembered in my meditation that Volume I of the Crown of Great Buddha Summit Surangama Sutra has the two words “passing dust”. “Fleeting dust” and “passing dust“ do sound fairly close, as something fleeting is something in passing.
The poet Bai Juyi’s (772-846) “Thoughts on a Rainy Night” contains this line: “My elder brother has a fleeting stay in Suzhou, my younger brother a passing guest in Dongchuan.” A guest’s stay is usually short-lived, no matter how long it is. If the right karma exists, the guest stays on. If not, then sooner or later he takes his leave. He should then be free to go, and not attached to his temporary abode.
In Teresa Cheung’s song, the words “fleeting dust” mean that being in this world is like being a traveller for a short stay. As the saying goes, whether right or wrong, success or failure, life ends in the time it takes to turn one’s head. So then, why should one indulge in greed and lust, cling to fame and fortune, or bring so much additional trouble to the world?
How, then, does Surangama Sutra explain the words “passing dust”?
Over 2,600 years ago, after attaining enlightenment Sakyamuni Buddha went to Sarnath and preached his first discourse in the deer park, on the Four Noble Truths to five disciples including Ajnata. Among them the first to be enlightened was Kaundinya, who later generations regard as a saint. He was the one awakened to the true mind by reflecting on the meaning of “passing dust”.
Anyone who practices the Dharma must first know his own mind to be able to find a starting point. A saying in Buddhism reminds followers, “Understand your own mind, and then commence your cultivation.” For otherwise, it will not only end up in vain, but may lead one astray.
What is one’s own mind? It is the unstoppable mindful activity in the moment. Since before the beginning, this mind has existed with you in the universe. You have been deceived by it to do evil bringing you evil karma, but it has also taught you to do good producing good karma, for you to enjoy fruits of joy. Everything you have experienced in the past, present, and everything you will experience in the future, whether good times or adversity, is driven by the mind.
The following comes from Volume I of Surangama Sutra:
The World`s Honoured One asked Ananda and the audience, “…… All living beings, you can’t attain awakening and become an arhat, all because of the troubles brought by fleeting dust. How did you become enlightened to achieve ariya phala?”
Kaundinya stood up and said, “I am one of Buddha’s first disciples. I recall that I was enlightened with the words ‘passing dust’ to achieve ariya phala.
“World`s Honoured One! For example, when someone travelling stays at a hostel, he rests, eats and after that sets off again, and will not stay in the same place. But if you own a place somewhere, you don’t have to keep moving. Therefore, I think this way: someone who can’t stay in one place is called a ‘guest’, and someone who stays on in one place is called the ‘host’.
“Another example is when rain stops and a new sun rises. It shines on the dirt floating in the air, but the void in the sky is still and quiet. Therefore, I think this way: the name for the clear void is ‘emptiness’ and the name for all that flows in it is ‘dust’. ”
In this scene, the “host” is constant and the “emptiness” is clear and still. Both describe the true mind of a sentient being, which is pure and unstained in nature, but because of the myriads of intricate external circumstances, in confusion it produces troubles like passing dust. These troubles are not inherent in the true mind, but a consequence of confused truth.
The true mind is profoundly clear and eternally still, of which what changes is its “passing dust”. All the evil karma created by greed, anger, delusion, killing, stealing, sexual lust and delirium originates with this passing dust, and it causes all sentient beings to transmigrate in infinite suffering with the cycle of rebirth. Life and death comes and goes, much as guests staying at a hostel, hence the name “passing”. And one’s discriminating and deluded frame of mind, unsettled, sways like floating dirt. Hence, “passing dust”.
The approach to enlightenment Kaundinya took was to carefully observe the brevity of passing in terms of life as a passenger, and the impermanence of dust in the world’s transmigration, recognize the difference between the true mind and a deluded one, and thus persevere in his efforts to ward off delusion and attain arhatship.
Cultivation in Buddhism, therefore, does not mean simply studying the canonical text. In fact, many ordinary things in life, even a little retro song, may become adhipatipratyaya, or a dominant condition for arising, as long as you contemplate and think through them with wisdom.