Interview with Venerable Chang Zao

Study Buddhism met with Venerable Chang Zao in the lush green hills of Dharma Drum Mountain in Taipei to discuss why multitasking never works, how anyone around us might be a bodhisattva, and what the meaning of life is.

Welcome to our enlightening conversation with Venerable Chang Zao, a respected Buddhist nun and the Director of Dharma Drum Malaysia. Set within the minimalistic concrete buildings of Dharma Drum University of Liberal Arts, located in lush mountains an hour northeast of Taipei, our discussion delves into the depths of Buddhist philosophy and practice, revealing insights that can be transformative for us all.

Venerable Chang Zao's wisdom shines as we explore the concept of causality spanning the three times via a traditional story, a profound Buddhist teaching that helps us understand why bad things sometimes happen to good people. Through her guidance, we learn to appreciate the intricate web of cause and effect that governs our lives and recognize the importance of cultivating wholesome actions in every moment.

Our conversation also touches on the significance of vegetarianism in Buddhism. While the Buddha may not have explicitly mandated it, Venerable Chang Zao highlights the underlying principles of compassion and non-harm that make it an essential practice for many Buddhists. As we discuss this topic, we are reminded of the interconnectedness of all living beings and our responsibility to minimize suffering in the world.

Lastly, we delve into the power of focus and concentration, as Venerable Chang Zao shares the secrets of Chan Buddhist tools designed to strengthen our minds. With her guidance, we learn techniques to harness the power of our thoughts and cultivate inner peace, empowering us to navigate life's challenges with grace and wisdom.

Join us on this inspiring journey with Venerable Chang Zao, as we explore the rich tapestry of Buddhist thought and practice and discover the transformative potential it holds for us all.

Study Buddhism: You grew up in Malaysia and embarked on science studies at university there. It seems that there are quite a few individuals who switch from science to Buddhist monasticism – I’m thinking of Matthieu Ricard here! – so what was it that drew you to Buddhism? What was it that Buddhism offers that science didn’t?

Venerable Chang Zao: As a science student, I was very interested in both science and psychology. I thought, “Wow, it's all so new, there's so much to learn, it's very interesting.” But once I discovered what the Buddhist teachings were about, I knew I had found the most important direction of my life. 

To me, the Buddhist teachings offer many answers, including even the principles by which the universe runs. Why do I have ups and downs? Why do I have disturbing emotions? When I feel troubled, what should I do? Buddhism provides so many answers. We can't really explain every single phenomenon. Actually, we are not trying to find reasons for every single thing happening in the course of our life, but rather we try to find out why our life is always changing.

This life is the aggregation of many causes and conditions, forming into various combinations. As long as we keep this principle in mind, we will discover the answer to many things. 

Can you tell us more about this principle of causality and why it is so important to understand it and relate it to our lives?

I can explain it by telling you a story, told by an old master. This old master said that once upon a time there was a businessman, who exploited a lot of people for profit, making the lives of many families very difficult, even treating some people with cruelty. In the area where he lived, everyone knew what a horrible person he was.

Then one day this “bad” guy started practicing Buddhism and thought, “Wow! The things I've been doing are really not OK. How could I have done them?” So, he made the aspiration to change. Because he was so notorious in his local area, he decided to move to another town to restart his life. 

There, he acted with a kind heart and became a great person. He would help others whenever he could, without being calculating. In this new town everyone saw him as a wonderful person, such a rare find in the world.

One day, he went out to sea with a friend, and suddenly a great storm grew and shook up the boat, throwing him overboard. He was crushed in between two boats, as they collided, and died. The residents of the town wondered how such an awful thing could happen to such a good person. How could he die in such a tragic way? “He did such good things but look at the result he got!”

The moral of the story is that if we know the previous causes, we can understand that some of the seeds of those causes are actually planted by us. Every good thing we do, every bad thing we do, every kind cause and destructive cause plants a seed. If we only look at what's in front of us, then we only see the present. We don't know the past and we don't know the future. For instance, when we watch a TV series, there's season 1, season 2, season 3, season 4. If we base our judgments only by watching season 2, we might think, “This screenwriter is really strange. Why did they write it like this? It doesn't make sense!”

Well, there's actually season 1 and season 3. And if you watch them all, then you will understand the full storyline. This is what in Buddhism we refer to as causality spanning three periods of time. Causality spanning three periods of time isn't fatalistic, as nothing is set in stone. Instead, when we encounter things happening in our lives that we just don't quite understand, then by learning the causality spanning three periods of time, we know that for certain there is a cause created in the past, appearing now. 

Of course, this isn’t to say that the future is doomed.  If we want to have a good future, then we need to think about what kind of good causes we need to plant now. This is the most important thing.

Following up on this old master’s story, I think there’s a pressing issue here for today’s polarized society. While this man realized his wrongdoings and changed, it seems that today we meet more and more people who never seem to change and whom we find unpleasant or even intensely dislike – politicians, celebrities, perhaps old friends who hold opposite political views. How can we develop empathy for those we don’t like or even consider as our “enemy”? 

No matter what kind of person they are, no matter what they do to us, no matter what they say to us, it all represents causality appearing in the present moment.

So, I try to see why the person I am interacting with said something that upsets me. I ask: why would they say this? It's because they have their own background history, they are the combination of their own unique factors. They have their own string of causes and conditions behind them. If I had experienced the same background as they did, I might even be more “terrible” than they are!

Nobody wants to be a disliked person. They don't want to be someone who makes others angry. If we can empathize with this, we can develop a compassionate heart and accept others as they are. Once we accept them, they will have a chance to reflect on themselves, wanting to uplift themselves, to transform themselves.

The view of lush tropical hills from the Institute of Liberal Arts at Dharma Drum Mountain.

What helps us grow isn't necessarily someone who is very kind to us, or someone that makes us very happy. If we look back at our lives, actually the help that many people gave us to learn and to grow as a person came because of the adversity they created, not because of the good times they brought.

When people bring out our internal anger, we should be grateful to them that they allow us to understand ourselves better. They are like a mirror. Without them, there would be no way for us to discover that we care about certain things so much, that there are lines that cannot be crossed for us, that there are some things that we just cannot accept. 

It is they who help us see all of this. If what a person says makes us angry, it's our problem, because we are the ones who planted the seed for the anger, we are the ones who have the habitual tendency of getting angry.

We think, “Bodhisattvas will be very nice to me, they will go along with what makes me feel joyous, what makes me feel happy!” But the Buddha told us that bodhisattvas are there to help us grow. So, actually, we can view all of these unpleasant people as bodhisattvas, who allow us to really understand ourselves, and who give us opportunities to grow, who enable us to go beyond our limits, until ultimately, we are purified to the point that we no longer interact with others by involving our self or ego. 

And in our lives, we will definitely encounter many bodhisattvas who include people who make us angry and with whom we quarrel!

How has your life changed since you became a nun?

My life before was just like mere existence. Sometimes it feels like you don't even know what kind of life you're living. Since becoming a nun, except for the change in my external appearances, I haven’t at all become someone with special powers, nor have I developed any special abilities compared to other people.

I just feel that my mind became much more stable, life became steadier, and I could learn how to really live every moment. I feel my mind understands more about how to calmly abide, and I know how to make myself at ease. My life after becoming a nun is actually much busier than before; actually, it's almost too busy! But I feel that this kind of busyness allows me to practice not being disturbed by the outside world, and also to let my mind deal with one thing at a time, and to see each moment as it comes.

When life is busy, it can enable us to discover how our minds run around chasing after the external world. If we can understand how to use this as an opportunity to practice, then our minds will constantly be learning how to settle down, calm down, and then we can enjoy the present moment. In this way, it's not a bad thing at all.

You’re right! Who doesn’t want to feel that mental stability and peace? But sometimes it feels as though even when we try to relax, our minds are running around all over the place.

Even when we have nothing to do, for instance if we go on holiday, if we don't have to work, we don't need to take care of children, we don't need to complete schoolwork or take exams, but still our minds are very busy. From this we can see that being busy in our daily activities isn't necessarily about external events; it's actually due to the habits of our minds, our habitual tendencies.

Our minds as they are are unable to truly live and enjoy the present. Even if we get to have something beautiful for a moment, immediately we will think about how to continue to possess it, and how to get more of it.

Whatever happens in the present moment, we never truly enjoy it. In fact, we never really and fully know what is happening in the present moment because we are never able to settle down in the present. We are always thinking about the past and wondering about the future.

I think this is an issue for me. And I’m sure for many of our readers, too. I find that in general I am either living in the past or living in the future. When I’m speaking with friends, I’m usually already formatting in my mind what I want to say next. And when I’m trying to focus on a task, I have ten other things on my mind at the same time. Why is this?

We are usually very susceptible to environmental influences in our lives. Our minds move along with the happenings of the external world. Because our minds are habitually scattered, we have no way to focus on a specific thing.

When we're preparing our breakfast, then we think about whom we might call. When we’re in class, we think about what we’re going to do when it ends, or we simply forget what we’re doing. Our minds are accustomed to this state of disorder. 

Before I started learning Chan practice, I also liked to do several things at the same time. I thought it would help me save some time. My teacher would say, “Learning Chan practice is very important because we have to cultivate a focused mind, and doing one thing at a time is good enough.” My first thought was, “What a waste of time! Just doing one thing at a time? Obviously, I can do three things at a time!”

But slowly I realized that when I did three things all at once, none of them were done well. For instance, while I was talking on the phone, I’d also be cleaning up my room, and then I’d do something else as well. The result was that I couldn’t focus on listening to the person talking to me, which led to communication problems, needing to spend more time clearing things up and explaining things to them.

Chan practitioners are well-known for their concentration skills. What are some of the Chan methods to start being able to achieve a stable, settled mind?

In Chan practice, in the beginning we have to use methods to bring our distracted minds to a concentrated, focused mind. This focused mind requires cultivation, it requires training.

The most commonly used method of Chan practice is either to observe the breath, or to count the breath. Breathing is there all the time. If we don’t breathe, then we can’t stay alive! But in reality, many people don't even know how they breathe. So, returning to this breath that we all have allows us to retake our minds from the external world and focus a bit more, and not let our minds run around.

When we just observe the breath, we can use the counting method. When you breathe out, you know it's 1. When you breathe out again, you know it's 2. You count the breaths from 1 to 10. Once you reach 10, then you go back to 1 as if you were continuing to count up past 10.

An image of Venerable Chang Zao during a talk in Malaysia. Image courtesy of

There is another similar method, which is the recitation of the Buddha's name. This method shares the same goal with the breathing method, which is to enable our minds running about like crazy to return to a single point.

When your mind runs away again, you just bring it back to the point. This is what we call the “method” in Chan practice. No matter what kind of changes are going on in our body or mind, no matter what kind of changes are happening externally, we always return to the method.

So, this is the start of the journey. But is the point of it all just to gain concentration and focus? In your experience as a teacher, what is the main point of Chan meditation and what are the most common misunderstandings about it?

When I started to learn Chinese Chan practice myself, I actually couldn't master the method. At that time, I thought Chan practice was all about sitting in meditation, quieting down, not thinking anything, and not doing anything. But actually, it's not possible to think nothing, it's not possible to do just nothing. My legs hurt so much, how could I not think, how could I not do anything?

If we are supposed to empty our minds of all our thoughts or try to force our thoughts in any particular way, that will lead to a state of unawareness. Chan practice teaches us how to temporarily keep our minds from grasping at everything, from constantly fluctuating, and instead return to the present and enjoy it with clarity.  It's not to numb our hearts and minds.

Even when we are not doing anything, just by being clearly aware of our present breath is so precious, as it is the result of innumerable causes and conditions coming together that allows us to be alive. 

Are these methods to keep focus and being in the present moment the aim of the meditation or are they more like a tool for something else?

The method is not Chan practice in and of itself, it is just a tool to help train our distracted minds to gradually become more focused. Once our minds are focused, it can help us unify our body and mind. Once our body and mind are unified, we will discover that actually the body and mind don't exist. Body and mind are just a result of causes and conditions coming together. So, the fourth step is the stage of no-mind.

Because everything is caused by the coming together of various causes and conditions, we can break through all of our disturbing emotions, because actually the disturbing emotions don't truly exist.

This method of keeping the mind focused is a very useful tool in Chan practice. But when we're on the path, we can't grasp on to it all the time, hold it all the way. When we reach a different level, we actually need to let it go completely. It's like when we are crossing a river, we need a boat to cross, but once we've crossed to the other side, we don't need to carry the boat on our backs as we continue our journey. 

You became a fully ordained nun in Taiwan, which has a thriving community of nuns. How do you see the role of women in Chan Buddhism?

In Buddhism, everyone can practice the Dharma, and everyone has the potential to become free from disturbing emotions, to become someone who can also help others become free from disturbing emotions. In the Buddha's teachings everyone has Buddha-nature. It's about inner practice, which enables us to become free from disturbing emotions and to help others become free from disturbing emotions.

In Chinese Buddhism, there have been many historical and cultural developments. For example, in Taiwan, the number of nuns is actually far higher than that of monks. This also reflects today’s social environment as a whole. Our society is no longer like the earlier, more conservative times when women were expected to stay at home and to rely on men for financial support.

Women have shown their potential in learning and their potential in contributing to society. The opportunities for women and men to learn and contribute are practically the same in wider society, without any obvious or significant difference.

In addition, women are generally more sensitive. They are more able to relate to people's suffering, emotions, difficulties, and confusion. Women's sensibility in this regard is indeed relatively stronger.

As I said, the proportion of nuns is very high. But this is just a phenomenon of this era. Will this phenomenon change? Certainly. It will always change just as the times change. So, in another era, it might be that there are more monks, and it won't necessarily be due to one particular reason. It's just a phenomenon that is formed by the causes and conditions that manifest in the present.

The Buddha didn’t make a rule saying that his followers had to be vegetarian, but most Buddhist monastic communities encourage it, and followers of Chinese Buddhism are known for keeping a strict vegetarian diet. How does vegetarianism fit in with Buddhist practice?

Being vegetarian was not something that was stipulated in the Buddha's time, but in Chinese Buddhism, we are vegetarian. Many people wonder: if the Buddha didn't lay down a rule, then why must we be vegetarian?

We have to go back and see the focus of the Buddha's teachings. What is the difference between the Buddha's time and our current era? The Buddha’s teachings are based on developing a compassionate mind. He wished that all of us would have the opportunity to learn how to leave our suffering behind and attain happiness. The Buddha felt that everyone has the same inner potential as he did. Buddha's compassion is not just for people, but also for all sentient beings.

An image of Venerable Chang Zao at Dharma Drum Mountain at the end of the interview.

During the Buddha's time, due to the environment, and because he had to travel to many different places, it wasn't always convenient to eat solely vegetarian food. That was the environmental circumstance of the time. But in our time, we actually have many choices.

We can choose to eat vegetarian food or choose to eat meat. With these choices, our own choice needs to actually be based on the fact that all beings of the six realms are the same as us. Those beings in the animal realm are just like us, in that they are also in the midst of disturbing emotions, constantly experiencing rebirth in samsara. It's just due to past karma ripening in the present life that they are born in the animal realm and I’m in the human realm.

So, being vegetarian is actually about showing universal empathy and compassion?

Animals are just like us, and one day they can also be born in the human realm, hear the Dharma, then engage in practice, and thus attain Buddhahood. This is absolutely possible.

So, our choice is based on compassion. 

Furthermore, because we want to eat beings, they have to be killed. At the moment of death, they actually suffer a lot. Especially when they are slaughtered on purpose for human food, they have fear, injury, terror. 

The reason that Chinese Buddhism emphasizes vegetarianism is mainly due to the fact that we should be cultivating our compassion. Buddhist practice is about transforming our minds, not about what we do externally. If we are all vegetarians, but our minds are full of hatred, full of greed, anger, and delusion, then it really doesn't make much sense at all.

Being vegetarian is mostly about practice, about aspiring to learn how to practice empathy with all beings, wishing all beings to leave suffering behind and attain happiness. Therefore, we don't let our desire for food, for something tasty, for something delicious, lead to lives being taken with such suffering, fear, and terror.

And finally, let’s finish off with an easy question! What is the meaning of life for you?

Basically, we can say that the lives of modern people are pretty stable. It is no longer like 200 years or 1000 years ago, when life was still full of worries. Instead, in this era, we have a different challenge: What exactly are we living for?

Many people look towards the material world to find meaning and value in life. But as soon as there is even the slightest change, they feel troubled. When deep inside we don't know what we're living for, we'll discover that we cannot rely on the material world for our entire life, because everything changes, everything transforms.

No matter how much effort we put in, can we really be sure that we can possess all of these things our whole life? No one can guarantee anything, and that's for sure.

If the material world isn't what we can depend on, then what can we rely on? Some people might look for support from spirituality. They might join some psychological support group or religious group and find satisfaction and support in that. But will there not be changes in these as well? Yes, there will still be changes. As long as we rely on something external, it's not actually very reliable.

When everything external is constantly changing like this, the meaning of life for me is to use every moment we have to create more positive causes, to help myself grow as a person, and to benefit other people. 

Venerable Chang Zao, thank you for your wonderful insight and stories, which are sure to inspire many people on their Dharma journey!