Chan Practice and Faith - I


Chan Practice without Faith?

People interested in Chan practice often find it difficult to have religious faith. As faith is intrinsically emotional, and Chan practitioners emphasize personal cultivation to gain physical and mental benefits or the experience of Chan, they find it hard to accept religious faith. This is actually a great mistake.

Many people think that Chan practice depends solely on their own efforts, requiring self-reliance, while those who practice by reciting the Buddha’s name depend solely on external help. Both of these views are incorrect. In reality, Chan practice also requires external help, and the practice of reciting the Buddha’s name also requires one’s own effort. One can hardly become an accomplished Chan practitioner through one’s own efforts. In India, China and Tibet, all mediators need the support and the assistance of teachers, Dharma-protecting deities, and the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. That is why Chan monasteries in China erect and worship the status of Dharma-protecting deities such as the eight divisions of divinities and the four deva kings.

In the past, eminent masters often encouraged Chan practitioners to “entrust their bodies to the monastery and their lives to the Dharma-protecting deities” during Chan meditation. You do not need to be concerned about your body since it will be taken care of by the masters on duty. You simply follow the monastery’s routines. However, to achieve good results in your practice, you need the support of Dharma-protecting deities. Without such assistance, one may turn into demonic hindrances. Practicing Chan depending solely on one’s own efforts without believing in the power of the Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and Dharma-protecting deities can not be considered practicing Buddhism at all.

Chan practitioners should believe in that in addition to meditating diligently and working on Chan, they need to accumulate merit and cultivate virtue. The idea that one can attain enlightenment or liberation by meditating on one’s own is itself an obstacle that precludes real liberation. How can a self-seeking person become enlightened? Therefore, the Chan School also emphasizes practices such as giving and repentance. If one does not show concern for the benefit of all sentient beings, sincerely give of oneself for others, and devotedly practice giving and make offering, it will be quite difficult to succeed in spiritual practice.

Work Cultivation

In the past, many as-yet-unenlightened Chan masters at large monasteries engaged in “work cultivation”, performing all lines of manual labor for their masters and monasteries. Such work included carrying water, chopping wood, cooking and other kitchen chores, growing vegetables, as well as cleaning up and maintaining the monastery and grounds.

At traditional Buddhist monasteries, forty-eight types of work were performed by monastic practitioners. Even today, they are relieved of complex tasks only during seven-day Chan retreats to avoid distractions. Otherwise, every monastic is assigned long-term tasks. Therefore, during our seven-day Chan retreats, we make it a rule to ask every participant to do some simple chores.

Chan monasteries encourage monastics to give their spare cloths, money or other possessions to the needy, keeping only the most basic necessities. In the past, a typical monastic Chan practitioner’s belongings weighed just a little over one kilo, because they gave away whatever came into their possession.

From these examples, we can see that a Chan practitioner must be ready to make offerings and practice giving, as well as give away unnecessary personal belongings to those who need them. Unfortunately, many Chan practitioners today are presumptuous, arrogant, selfish and petty, and lack faith. This is pity and dangerous. How did this happen? It is because people who take up Chan practice hope to have physical and mental experiences such as stability, joy and health. However, once these objectives are achieved, they see those achievements as the product of their own efforts, rather than the result of a spiritual response from the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, or the support of Dharma-protecting deities in the monastery. Nor do they believe these effects are due to the skilful guidance of a venerable master or certain teacher. As a result, they become arrogant, conceited and complacent, lacking both belief and a sense of respect.

Believe in the Existence of Certain Realities

“Faith” means that, in spite of our own limited capacities and knowledge, we believe in the existence of certain realities. This can best be illustrated by the Chinese expression: “We look up to a sage’s noble behavior like looking up to a lofty mountain. Unattainable though it may seem, we yearn for it in our hearts.” When we see a lofty mountain, even though we are as yet unable to reach its peak, we still believe that there must be great masters residing yonder, and the scenery must be fantastic. The higher we climb, the more we discover things we have never seen before. This is belief based on admiration. Standing far below, we revere what is high above us, generating a belief that there must be some unknown power above that can help us. But if our faith is insufficient, we will not be able to believe in things that Buddhism talks about that are beyond our ken, and our spiritual practice will not be effective.

Chan Buddhism advocates belief in our own nature, that is, the belief that we ourselves can attain Buddhahood, and that we are originally the same as all Buddhas, not lacking in any single attribute of a Buddha. Chan Buddhism asserts that if only we let go of our self-centeredness, we will instantly see our “original face,” so we can all attain Buddhahood. Our original face is the Buddha in our own nature. The Buddha-nature is inherent in us, not acquired after cultivation. For this reason, many people misunderstand Chan Buddhism and neglect the importance of faith.

We Are all Intrinsically Buddhas, But?

The basic theory that we are all intrinsically Buddhas is correct. But in practice, it does not quite work that way. As an illustration, everyone may become a parent, but does that mean a newborn baby is a parent? He has yet to grow up and reach adulthood. He is not a parent yet, and is still a baby. Will a baby become a parent in the future? Not necessarily. Those who take monastic vows at an early age and practice celibacy will not become parents, nor will those who are married but infertile. In theory, everyone can be a parent. But in actuality, it is not necessarily so.

Similarly, in a democratic society every citizen has the right to vote, and be elected to office. However, while the majority has the right to vote, few have the opportunity to be elected. Due to a lack of ability or causes and conditions, we can only vote, but can never be elected. There are, however, those who, upon hearing that in Chan teaching “everyone has the Buddha-nature,” fancy themselves as equivalent to Buddhas with perfect wisdom, though they are nothing but ignorant, mediocre people. Seeing Buddha images, they not only refuse to prostrate, but scoff, saying that as present Buddhas themselves, they do not prostrate to past Buddhas. They think, “I have a Buddha within. Why bother to worship clay or wooden statues of Buddhas, or their painted images!”

Such people believe that only their own mind is the Buddha and that there is no Buddha outside their mind. When they see other people making prostrations, they call it attachment. When people prostrate to a venerable master, these self-proclaimed Chan practitioners shake their heads and sign, “There is no need to prostrate to the Buddha, let alone a monastic.”

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