Is Practice Necessary?

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Two Misconceptions

In the West as well as in the East, there are many who have the misconception that Chan just emphasizes direct pointing to the mind and dispenses with all methods of cultivation. This misconception may arise from the view that, since everyone is originally a buddha and already enlightened, there is no need to practice. The second misconception is that, yes, we do have to practice, but all that is required is to sit, sit, and sit. A story from the early Chan School in China illustrates this second misconception. As a monk, Mazu Daoyi (709-788) spent a lot of time meditating. One day, while Mazu was sitting in deep meditation, Master Nanyueh Huaijang (677-744), sat next to him and started rubbing a brick with his sleeve. Mazu asked, “Why are you rubbing that brick?” Nanyueh replied, “I am polishing it until it becomes a mirror.” Mazu said, “That’s strange, I never heard that rubbing a brick could make it into a mirror.” Whereupon the master said: “And I never heard that one can become a buddha by sitting.”

To Practice, or Not to Practice ?

It is impossible to become enlightened merely by sitting. But even more unlikely is the idea that without any practice at all one is naturally an enlightened buddha. Nevertheless, there are many who believe that not being enlightened is enlightenment itself and accordingly, there is no need to practice. A lot of people believe in this theory because it is such an easy path. For a period of time in America, bohemians took the free and easy lifestyle of the poet Hanshan (Cold Mountain) as the spirit of Chan. Buddhism terms this type of practice “the natural outer path.” You should know that the true practice of Chan follows a definite course with a basis and various ascending levels, each with its own accompanying method

Not Too Hot and Not Too Cold

Everyone is most comfortable in cool or moderate temperatures, neither extremely hot nor extremely cold. Our practice should be the same, not too hot and not too cold. That is, you should not be overanxious to get rid of vexations or to seek wisdom and, on the other hand, you should not take it easy and be lax. This is called the Middle Way.

In the Buddhist sutras, coolness corresponds to wisdom and heat to vexations. However, extreme cold also represents vexations. There are two categories of hells – some are boiling hot and some are freezing cold. What is hell? Hell is the place of suffering, and suffering means vexations. Our objective is to replace vexations (caused either by over-anxiety or laxity) with the cool refreshment of wisdom.

The Duality of Heaven and Hell ?

Is there really such a thing as heat and cold? That is to say, does hell, or suffering, really exist? Depending on your mental state, you could say that there really is and you could also say that there really isn’t. When you feel subject to vexations, then heat and cold are very real; when you don’t feel any vexations, then heat and cold simply disappear, along with the hells. Most people are afraid to fall into hell and desire to go to heaven. But in reality, both of them are vexations. Just as dreading cold or heat amounts to the same thing. So, if you get to heaven out of a desire for happiness, that happiness will also be a vexation. Therefore, you can’t have one without the other. If hell exists, heaven also exists. But when your mind is free of vexations, both the hells and the heavens would cease to exist. Thus, from the standpoint of Chan there is no heaven, no hell, no Buddha, and no sentient beings. That is to say there are no vexations.


But, based on this view that there is no hell and no heaven, if you say you do not have any vexations, that is also a vexation. Any person who feels the presence or absence of vexations is not qualified to say there is no heaven or hell, nor is he qualified to say there are no sentient beings and no Buddha. In the Vimalakirti Sutra we find that if your mind is pure and without vexations, the land you are living in would also be pure and absent of vexations. Then would there be any heat or cold in that land? At that time, cold is just heat, heat is just cold; vexations are just wisdom and sentient beings are just the Buddha.

Heat Is Just Heat and Cold is Just Cold

But now, no matter what I may say, it is obviously very hot in this meditation hall. Should we deceive ourselves by saying it is not hot while we are sweating and nearly fainting from the heat? And in the winter, when this place becomes very drafty, should we deny that it is freezing cold? Heat is just heat and cold is just cold. How can we say that there is no such thing? Are the sutras trying to deceive people by saying that cold is hot and hot is cold?

When Our Mind Is in a Unified State

No, the sutras are not deceiving us. It is only when our mind is scattered and has not settled down yet, that we feel the changes in temperature. When our mind is in a unified state and does not wander outwards, we have already forgotten the existence of our body and bodily sensations; that is, we don’t feel environmental factors such as temperature impinging on our body. Then, at that point, we would be naturally qualified to say that there is no such thing as hot or cold. It would not even occur in our minds

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From Chan Newsletter No. 15, August, 1981 Spoken at Columbia University



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