Bitter Practices


Bitter Practices

Many of the names by which we know Chan masters are not their family names but Dharma names, bestowed often by followers. Often they were names of mountains where the master settled. These names often reflect the wintry environment of the places where they practiced. Very rarely do we find names associated with summer. Winter, symbolized by falling snow, represents the spirit of Chan, whereas the spirit of summer is quite different. In hot weather it is very easy to feel sleepy and dull-minded, while cold weather, especially in the mountains, is very good for meditation. To give a few examples, one master’s name was “Snowy Peak,” another was named “Snow Cave,” then there was “Snow Ravine,” and “Snow Cliff.” These Chan masters sought out places where there was a lot of snow.

Perhaps someone practicing on a mountain may be sitting poorly and think, “Maybe I will take a break and stroll down the mountain for a while.” But when there is a heavy snowfall, all the roads are blocked off and if you were to venture out you may end up falling off the mountain to your death. At times like that, even if you don’t want to meditate, you still have to meditate. And with snow in every direction not only can’t you go anywhere else but there is nothing to eat except snow.

Once when Master Ouyi was practicing at Chiu-hwa Mountain there was a tremendous snowstorm. There wasn’t much around to eat and having very few clothes on, he was freezing. He noticed a pine tree that had a few nuts on it, but after eating the nuts he was still cold. So he made a fire with the nut shells. Then he started wondering when the snow would stop falling. The prospects didn’t look very good and the things available to eat would only keep him alive for another day at most, so he thought: “This is it for me; it’s probably my fate to die here.” Originally he hoped to get some food into his belly and find some more clothing to relieve the cold, but as soon as he accepted the fact that he would die, he didn’t feel like eating anymore and his body no longer felt cold. He just sat there waiting to freeze to death. Then he actually did freeze.

After a number of days some people passed by and saw him sitting there, and said, “Master! What are you doing here? We haven’t seen you for a long time!” When he heard the sound of voices, he opened his eyes and said, “That is strange. I haven’t died yet!”

Another case of bitter practice was Master Xuyun (Empty Cloud). One time he ran into a blizzard on the road. He had nothing to eat and his body was sick. Then he came upon a small shack on the side of the road. It had walls but no roof. Nevertheless, he went inside and sat down leaning against the wall where there was a little pile of snow. Like Master Ouyi he sat down preparing to die. The snow piled up higher and higher until he was surrounded completely by snow. But at this point he had already entered into samadhi. Several days later a beggar came by and, brushing the snow out of the way, saw there was someone sitting there. Thereupon he pulled some straw off the walls and made a fire. Then he took out a pot, melted some snow in it and cooked up gruel out of some millet he was carrying. When Xuyun felt that sensation of heat, he revived. He saw somebody making porridge for him to eat and he did not die after all.

At the Chan Center here we have heat in the winter, fans in the summer, and plenty of food in the refrigerator. Nobody needs to feel that they are about to die here. That kind of feeling would never come up here. In fact, there is no example in the history of the Chan sect of a patriarch who practiced in such comfortable surroundings as we have. If every one of us takes this spirit of patriarchs as a standard, we will always feel ashamed. We would constantly be aware that we are not practicing hard enough and that our resolve is not sufficiently firm.

Some people have to suffer before they can really begin to work. Without suffering they cannot arouse any strength from the practice. These people have a very intimate relationship to pain and suffering. It is difficult for most people to accept the idea of death, but someone who suffers to the point where they are ready to die is very likely to get power from the practice.

Resources: From Chan Newsletter No. 21, May, 1982; Tea Words, p49-51

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