Chan, Meditation, and Mysticism

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Chan and Meditation Are One and the Same?

Some people think Chan and meditation are one and the same— that Chan is meditation and meditation is Chan. This is not the case. Chan is actually the stage at which one has progressed through the various levels of meditation experience, but has transcended these stages. If one only practices meditation and does not transcend the meditation state, one can at most attain a mind that is unified and unmoving. This is called samadhi.

When a Person in Samadhi Returns to the World

When a person in samadhi reenters the dynamic, everyday world, they would very likely revert to ordinary mind. To maintain the samadhi state one needs to practice continuously. It would be best to withdraw from everyday affairs and go to the mountains. However, even when a person in samadhi returns to the world, that person will be changed by virtue of having experienced samadhi. He or she would tend to be more stable and have a better understanding of the world than those who have never been in samadhi. The true Chan experience goes beyond samadhi. When mind reaches a very concentrated and unified state, the Chan method urges you to press on until even that unified mind is transcended—shattered or dissolved if you will—and one experiences no-mind. At this time the mind will not easily return to its original scattered state because it is not there. However, after a certain period one’s residual attachments may cause the mind return to the ordinary, deluded state.

Stages of Meditation

I describe the stages of practice as going from a scattered mind to a unified mind. This is the meditation state. But the final stage, called Chan, is reached when even this unified mind disappears. In Chan, even the unified mind is considered an attachment to a large self, as opposed to our normal small self. In the meditation state the self is limitless and unbounded, but there is still a self-center to which we are attached. Because of this attachment one still discriminates between the “real” and the “unreal.” For example, religious figures often say they alone speak the truth. These positions are based on their religious experiences and the convictions which stem from them, but they make a clear separation between the “real” and the “unreal.” This person will often feel they have left the false world and entered into a truer, more real kind of world. A feeling of opposition to the “false” world arises as this person has no wish to return to his previous state. So in this struggle to reject the false and cling to the real a kind of friction, or dualism, develops between these opposing worlds.

Real vs. Unreal

In Chan there is no bias towards the “real” or rejection of the “unreal.” Chan encompasses the totality of all things and sees them as equal and not different. Thus, a characteristic of the Chan sect are the many stories and sayings, called gong’ans that seem paradoxical or illogical. I myself have a saying, “Birds swim deep in the ocean; fish fly high in the sky.” Is this nonsense? Actually it’s very simple. Birds and fish are originally without names, why not call birds fish? Also, our lives are simply the way they are. What is wrong with them? What need is there to search after some real world? Why do we insist on seeing the world as confused and unhappy?


Each individual existence is real, but reality is not separate from illusion. Chan transcends the ordinary and then returns to the ordinary. But it would be deception to say that we already understand what Chan is. First, one must practice to attain a unified, concentrated state of mind, then cast off this mind and return to the ordinary world. At this stage one is truly liberated and free to roam in the world. To use an analogy, the ordinary mind sees mountains and rivers as mountains and rivers. Next one reaches a state where mountains are no longer mountains and rivers are no longer rivers. This is the mind of non-discrimination. Finally, even this state is transcended and we again see mountains and rivers as part of the ordinary world. This is the state of no-mind that but it has embraced the real world as it is. There is no distinction of “real” and “false.” world.

Compare Chan to Mysticism

So if one wants to compare Chan to mysticism, we may say that the practitioner has mystical experiences but Chan itself is not mystical. Rather, Chan is ordinary life. Actually, the mysticism spoken of in academia and books is not what I regard as genuine mysticism. Those who speak of mystical states but have never experienced them will of course think of them as strange and extraordinary. Perhaps when one first begins to practice meditation, or possibly through the practice of other religious disciplines, one may have such an experience. At this point one would feel their state to be different from their ordinary, practical life. But, their experience is still not complete and their understanding is still vague and not totally clear. One still regards the experience as mystical and strange.

Nothing Mystical about it

However, when one deeply experiences unified mind or the transcendence of Chan, this experience is not viewed as strange or extraordinary. On the contrary, the experience is seen as real and true; there is nothing mystical about it. It is simply normal, ordinary life. From this standpoint one may say that the world as ordinary people see it could be considered strange or mystical, while the world as enlightened people see it is true and ordinary. So, I would say that in Chan there is no mysticism at all!



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