In human life, we always must have a noble mind and spirit and attitude. We must be this way toward power, toward money, toward rank. While everyone in the world is scrambling after them, you must give them a slight smile. This is because what is called “independence” is not being trapped by thoughts and apparent forms, and you must not deliberately tie up and constrain your own mind.
One day I was talking with a young friend about the revelation of death. I told him that my younger brother had died when he was twenty-seven, and his death brought me a great shock and feeling of enlightenment. Even now, in the house in Wuwei [in Liangzhou] I still keep a headrest which is a dead man’s skull, and this always reminds me that death can arrive at any time. After hearing this, my friend talked about how he was thinking three years earlier: he said that at the time his physical health was not good, and he realized that when he was healthy he certainly would live in the way he wanted to live. I asked him, “What kind of life do you want to lead?” He said, “Just like now, driving along the roads, often taking trips for several days.” He also said that in fact he was already comparatively content with his present life, but he could never avoid feeling pain, and sometimes he would also feel some nameless dread for the future, and he would feel anger and sadness when other people misunderstood him and hurt him. I told him that what he needed was freedom, but not the kind of freedom he had now. Now he had only reached a kind of physical independence, and although this kind of independence is not bad, it is still something passive, because it requires material protection. If someday an economic crisis affected his company, his independence would immediately be greatly reduced. What’s more, since he often felt fear, anger, and sadness, this showed that having a certain material foundation had not brought him freedom of the mind and spirit.
In real life, many friends all want to earn a lot of money, because they feel that this way they can achieve freedom and independence in life, but in fact it is often not like this. This is because the more they have, the more they see, and the more they do not want to lose it. The more they have and the more they long for, the more energy they must expend to maintain it and seek it. In this state of mind, it is very hard for them to realize freedom of the mind and spirit, and sometimes they have no way to preserve even the freedom of the body.
My students have had many experiences of this kind. For example, one student told me that in order to build a better living environment for her family, she was constantly making great efforts, and spent a great deal of her time working and socializing, and never listened patiently to the things her child said to her, and never prepared a meal for her family. From an early age, her child lacked motherly love and attention, and became hypersensitive and suffered from an inferiority complex, and could not interact comfortably with other people. After the child grew up, she developed defects in her personality that were hard to repair. In contemporary society there are many such stories. Many children, from the time they are very small, are kept busy going to supplementary classes, and have no time to play, and no time to commune with nature. Little as they are, they are all carrying heavy book bags, wandering the streets alone. Every time I see this situation, I feel very saddened. I don’t know whether or not one day all the parents in the society will be able to understand that what children need the most is not better and better material conditions, but rather love, attention, and correct guidance. But the many desires of the parents, the society’s ever-changing values and views of life, are always polluting and doing harm to the crystalline purity of the children’s minds and spirits, and pitilessly smashing their dreams and yearnings. They too will be like their parents, living harried lives within society’s pressures, with no way to taste true happiness and freedom.
In reality, freedom is not as complicated as many people imagine. It is very plain and simple, and very pure. Moreover, it is no absolutely linked to material things. My son Chen Yixin’s mother made an excellent statement: “Picking through the trash you can still manage to eat.” She meant that a person must keep on living and it is not difficult. As long as a person can keep on living, the person has the power to decide and choose his own manner of living. So we say that what takes away your freedom is often not fate, but your mind filled with desire. Let’s take an example. If you feel that, in order to say you are living well, you certainly must have a car and an apartment, and you must take an annual vacation abroad, then you have shackled yourself with invisible chains, because, to get these materials things you must give up many things, including the precious time you are alive, and sometimes what you give up will also include your standards for morality and virtue. What’s more, your life is created by your mind, and if you do not have a mind and spirit that are free, then how can you live a free life?
I live very freely and very happily, because I have given up many things. Many years ago, before I had become successful, I once opened a bookstore, and that bookstore could earn a lot of money for me, but it was wasting a lot of my life time, so without the least bit of hesitation, I closed it down. Many of the people who were in the book business with me have now become rich, but they all envy me, because I have produced many books, and even more because I have left behind things that time cannot destroy. If I had wanted to eat well, dress well, live well, drive a car, then I would have only been able to do meaningless things. That’s why I often say, in human life, we always must have a noble mind and spirit and attitude. We must be this way toward power, toward money, toward rank. While everyone in the world is scrambling after them, you must give them a slight smile. If you have this mind and spirit that are not bound by desires, then you will naturally be able to live freely and independently. This is because what is called “independence” is not being trapped by thoughts and apparent forms, and you must not deliberately tie up and constrain your own mind.
The liberation that Buddhists seek is a kind of absolute freedom – we also call it independence. It is not like the “freedom” that many people understand in theory. People usually think that the external world constrains their own words and actions, so they feel they are not free. But Buddhists recognize that freedom must be total complete freedom, a realm of “total achievement in all directions.” What’s more, the freedom which Buddhists advocate is a freedom of the mind and spirit, a pure lucidity that is not deluded or confused by empty illusory apparent forms. It is the courage to make choices independently and firmly. It is not blind obstinate clinging, and not irresponsible indulgence. Nevertheless, there is an area where there is a correspondence between the “freedom” in people’s mind and the “freedom” which Buddhists speak of. This is that both emphasize that we must “get free from bondage.” But because there is a big difference between the Buddhist understanding of “bondage” and the common understanding of this term in society, this creates many divergences between how the two understand “freedom.” People all think that bondage is something the external world forces on them, and so they are accustomed to looking for the external world to change. But Buddhists think that bondage is the many clingings and attachments that arise from recognizing the false as real, and is something that people impose upon themselves. This is why what genuine Buddhist practitioners yearn for and seek is always a transformation of their own minds, and not a change in the external world. In their eyes, to genuinely “get free from bondage,” they must leave behind all clingings and attachments.
Different points of view engender different choices, and different choices give rise to different routes of seeking. This is basically very normal. I often say, the sun has the sun’s trajectory, and a planet has a planet’s trajectory. It is precisely all the many differences that make up the abundance of the world. However, in this world, ultimately how many people can lucidly make choices, and how many people are willing to accept all the results their choices bring?