A Dialogue on Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism

A Dialogue on Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and Venerable Chan Master Sheng Yen

Venerable Master Sheng Yen:
Buddhism was transmitted from India to China in the second century of the Common Era and to Tibet in the seventh or eighth century CE. Because of distinctive cultural influences and modes of thought, such as Confucianism and Daoism in China and the Bon religion in Tibet, Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism gradually blossomed into very distinctive forms of Buddhism.

Without free exchange of views and frequent interaction, in the past the two traditions , misunderstood and criticized each other. For example, some Chinese Buddhists have thought that Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes esotericism and is therefore obscure and inaccessible, and some Tibetan Buddhists may have regarded Chinese Buddhism as incomplete.

These two Buddhist traditions are really like the separated children of one mother. Because they have been apart for a long time and are now reunited, it is important that they encourage, and work towards, mutual understanding. After hearing the teachings of His Holiness during the past two days, I feel that Tibetan Buddhism is rich in its explication of Dharma, especially the stages of practice, and in its detailed elaboration of doctrinal classification and methods of practice.

His Holiness:
I am very happy to have this opportunity to participate in a discussion with Venerable Master Sheng Yen. I first met him in Taiwan in 1997 and have since then met him on a number of occasions. This is the first time that I have had a dialogue with a Chan Buddhist. It is very important for all the different major religious traditions of the world to have this kind of dialogue, so that there can be mutual learning and mutual appreciation of the key tenets and teachings of each other's traditions. This is particularly important for members of all the various Buddhist lineages. Of course, all Buddhists follow the same master, our original teacher Shakyamuni Buddha.

The Chan Tradition
Master Sheng Yen:
To begin the process of finding common ground between these two great Buddhist traditions, I will briefly outline the development of Chan Buddhism. After its arrival from India in the second century CE, Buddhism in China evolved into ten schools, eight of which belong to the Mahayana tradition and two to the Hinayana. Among the Indian Mahayana schools, there were three direct descendants in China: the Three-Treatise School, the Consciousness-only School, and the Vinaya School.

The Union of the Tiantai and Huayan Schools
Master Sheng Yen:
In the early formation of Chinese Buddhism, two main schools contributed to the sinification of Indian Buddhism: the Tiantai School and the Huayan School. Both of these schools have very systematic and comprehensive doctrinal classifications. Their presentations of methods of practice are detailed and extremely rich.

Both these schools relied heavily on Indian sutras and shastras. I will not elaborate on these two traditions, except to say that the founder of the Tiantai School, Master Zhiyi, was famous for his development of Nagarjuna's teaching on the two ways reality can be perceived according to the Threefold Truths. The Threefold Truths are the teachings on emptiness, conventional existence, and the Middle Way. On this basis, he also systematized a variety of shamatha and vipashyana practices. Many of these practices are similar to the Tibetan Lam Rim teaching. The Tiantai School based its main tenets on the Lotus Sutra and on the Treatise of the Middle Way by Nagarjuna

The Huayan School teaches the equality, mutual identity, and inclusiveness of all things. It is perhaps best known for its philosophy of the Fourfold Dimensions of Reality:

1. The teaching that reveals the realm of phenomena based on the doctrine of Hinayana
2. The teaching on the underlying principle of phenomena based on the doctrine of the Consciousness-only and the Middle Way schools
3. The teaching on the unobstructed interrelation between principle and phenomena based on scriptures such as the Vimalakirti Sutra
4. The teachings of the unobstructed interrelation between each and every phenomenon based on the Avatamsaka Sutra, from which the Huayan School took its name

Thus, the Huayan teaching is really a harmonization of all systems of thought within Indian Buddhism. In addition to the Avatamsaka Sutra(English: "Garland Sutra"), the Huayan School also appropriated teachings from the Commentary on the Mahaprajnaparamita-sutra, by Nagarjuna, and from the Treatise on the Ten Grounds..

Chan (which in Japanese is pronounced "Zen") is a kind of culmination of these two schools, synthesizing the best of both traditions in its main teaching. Furthermore, since the emergence of the Chan School, it has gone through several periods of transformation. Without going into the details of such transformation, we can simply summarize that the development and maturation of the thought and practice of Chan made it the dominant school of Chinese Buddhism. However, all three schools-Tiantai, Huayan, and Chan-are based on the teachings of the early scriptures such as the Agamas and the Abhidharma treatises.

The Harmonizing and Unifying of Chinese Buddhism
Master Sheng Yen:
The characteristic Chinese thought pattern favors inclusiveness, directness, simplicity, and avoidance of meticulous, complex thought. Probably the most influential and illustrious figure in the history of the Chan School was the sixth patriarch, Huineng. The wisdom of Huineng-in particular, that gathered in the Platform Sutra-reflects this characteristic pattern of thought, which harmonizes and unifies all of the main tenets of Chinese Buddhism. The story of Huineng's own enlightenment is interesting in this regard. One day, he overheard the words from the Diamond Sutra "Not abiding anywhere, give rise to mind!" This single line revealed to him the heart of Mahayana Buddhism-emptiness and compassion.

Two other sutras that contributed to the development of Chan are the Lankavatara Sutra and the Vimalakirti Sutra. The main teaching of the Lankavatara Sutra is the idea of Tathagatagarbha, or buddha-nature-that we are all endowed with the potential to reach Buddhahood. The Vimalakirti Sutra reveals that in order to reach genuine enlightenment, practitioners must relinquish attachment and dualistic discrimination. In other words, we must put down all of our afflictive emotions, or kleshas.

To shatter the shackle of kleshas is to be free of all obstructions to the Buddha's insight into the nature of reality. Only then will one know, for the first time, the non-duality of afflictions and wisdom, samsara and nirvana, good and bad. Being free from contrivance and abstract conceptualization, one can be in perfect accordance with what the Buddha sees and what the Buddha knows.

The methods of the Chan School vary from teacher to teacher. In early Chan stories, Bodhidharma, the first Chan patriarch in China, had an interesting dialogue with his student Huike, who became the second patriarch. One day, Huike sought out the help of Bodhidharma to pacify his afflicted and vexed mind. Bodhidharma told him, "Bring me your mind and I will pacify it!" When Huike could not bring forth his mind, Bodhidharma said, "There, I have already pacified your mind." Upon hearing this, Huike was greatly enlightened.

In essence, we see a similar dynamic functioning of wisdom in Bodhisattva Manjushri. In one sutra, someone asks Manjushri, "You are the teacher of Buddhas in the past, present, and future. When will you yourself attain Buddhahood? And how long have you been cultivating the Dharma?" Bodhisattva Manjushri's reply was quite interesting and unusual: "How long do you plan to ask such questions?"

The enlightenment of which Chan masters speak is not attained by any fixed method. The main point is to understand and recognize the mind of kleshas, or mental afflictions. The traditional methods of practice in Indian Buddhism were indeed quite difficult; one had to proceed by practicing the five methods of stilling the mind, beginning with counting one's breath. Then, one progressed through the stages of investigation, waiting, joy, and bliss before reaching meditative equipoise or mental quiescence. In this view, Buddhahood was a distant goal indeed!

The teaching of Chan aims at freeing oneself from dualistic deluded thinking. When discriminations arise, when we persist in labeling something as good or bad, as a like or a dislike, we then must try to locate this mind. In the immediacy of the present moment and dropping all clinging, when one cannot find this discriminating mind, it is possible to gain a realization of emptiness.

Hearing this, some people may conclude that Chan practice is a "shortcut" for the lazy. By no means! Chan also requires cultivation of precepts, concentration, and wisdom. If one's mind is not pure, one's conduct will not be pure. Therefore, one must begin by cultivating the precepts individually. Cultivating precepts simply means doing what one should do and not doing what one should not do. At the same time, if one truly wants to practice Chan, bodhichitta-arousing the mind of altruism to benefit others-is necessary. To do this, one should receive the bodhisattva precepts and take to heart the three sets of pure precepts of a bodhisattva.

The three sets of pure precepts are ending all non-virtue, cultivating all goodness, and delivering all sentient beings. In fact, I believe that these three sets of pure precepts are in perfect harmony with the teaching of the Three Principal Paths: renunciation, bodhi-mind, and the correct view of emptiness, as taught by His Holiness.

If a person has already seen buddha-nature-the nature of emptiness-and has eradicated all afflictions of mind, formalities and sectarian rules of conduct become useless because all conduct naturally will accord with the precepts. For example, the great Chan Master Baizhang (720-814) said that he had not violated the precepts of the Buddhist path, nor would he allow himself to be bound by them. We should note that Master Baizhang was famous for establishing an early set of rules for Chan monastic discipline, called the Pure Rules of Baizhang, which in essence replaced the Indian codes of conduct for monks.

Regarding the realizations of samadhi and prajna, perhaps I should point out that when Chan speaks of great samadhi, it is in essence inseparable from prajna, or wisdom. Chan does not place much emphasis on the progressive stages of mental quiescence leading to samadhi. Instead, Chan places greater emphasis on the simultaneous realization of samadhi and wisdom-if the realization of emptiness dawns, great samadhi also manifests. Samadhi and prajna are mutually inclusive and equal.

How one actually engages in the practice of Chan depends on one's conviction and faith. One should have resolute faith in the words of the Buddha that we all have buddha-nature-that we all have the full potential to be Buddhas. If in an instant of thought we can be free from dualistic discriminations, it is possible to be enlightened right then! We see in the early scriptures such as the Agamas that in the Buddha's time many people reached arhatship upon hearing a simple phrase from the Buddha. For example, in the case of one layperson who went to see Shakyamuni Buddha, all that the Buddha said was "Good, good. It is good that you have come now," and that person immediately reached arhatship! In Chan, there were many such cases, including the case of Master Huineng, who experienced sudden enlightenment when he heard the Diamond Sutra.

However, ordinary people who are unable to do this must begin with the basics. In terms of meditation, the first thing people should cultivate is a relaxed body and mind. To accomplish this, it is sufficient to use the method of counting the breath or some other method. On this basis, people can proceed to use either one of the two advanced Chan meditation methods, those of the Caodong and Linji schools. The Caodong School of Chan teaches the method of silent illumination. One begins by maintaining a simple awareness of one's own bodily sensations and presence in the act of "just sitting." Then, one rests on the awareness of mind itself. When the mind is stable, one's awareness continues, reaching a state of "cessation-contemplation." No numbers, no body, no environment, no theme at all occupies the mind. This is a kind of formless contemplation apart from the four elements, the five aggregates, and levels of consciousness. At this time, one can realize who one really is in the nature of reality.

To restate simply: whatever internal or external experiences that may arise should all be left behind, and one should free oneself from all concepts, labels, descriptions, and comparisons. Without giving rise to discriminating thoughts, one should maintain utmost clarity.

Many people like talking about enlightenment. They think that the extemporaneous acts of ancient Chan masters, such as hitting people or yelling at them, can bring enlightenment, that these events can free them from wandering thoughts and afflictions. However, these rare actions in the Chan School are only useful when a highly accomplished student is vexed, in the midst of discrimination, by strong attachments. Such sudden, drastic measures are useful only when the causes and conditions are ripe. Even then, the student's experience may not necessarily be enlightenment.

If these methods are not appropriate or useful, there is also the huatou or the gong'an method of the Linji School of Chan. One can ask such questions as "Who is having so many afflictions?" "Who is clinging and engaging in wandering thoughts?" "Who has this karma?" "Who is it?" When one continually and single-mindedly asks such questions, it is possible to congeal all of the wandering thoughts, vexations, and ignorance until they do not arise. At that point, realizing the student's state of mind, a skillful master may do or say something out of the ordinary to precipitate the student's experience of emptiness.

Building a Pure Land in the World
Master Sheng Yen:
This purification of our minds and actions is a prerequisite to our purification of the larger realms of the world as a whole. I am currently involved in a social movement, "Building a Pure Land in the World." It is our hope to make the Buddha Land manifest in the human world. To make this vision come true, we must begin by purifying our minds and then purifying our actions. When our minds and our actions are pure, we will be able to have a profound influence on others, enabling their minds and actions to be pure. Eventually, in this way, our world will become a pure land.

Purity refers to a state free from self-grasping vexations. To purify the mind is indeed very difficult. A true realization of pure mind, free from afflictive emotions, actually begins after one has experienced the wisdom of emptiness. Though this is a difficult path, we should not be discouraged and give up hope. Practice always begins with being an ordinary person. We begin our practice because we have afflictive emotions. Indeed, if we do not have these vexations, we would have no way to start practice.

According to the Tiantai School, a single thought-moment in our mind is connected to the minds of all sentient beings everywhere. Even if our minds cannot immediately be in accordance with the wisdom of emptiness, at least we can avoid acting on our vexations. To be free from afflictions temporarily is much better than churning in the sea of suffering!

The process of curing the disease of vexation has three stages: recognition, subduing, and severance. The ability to recognize our confusion and ignorance is already an improvement. Only after recognizing what vexations are can we begin to subdue them. Then, we can really sever them. If one knows one's vexations, one is already in consonance with the pure mind.

For this reason, as soon as we recognize the mind of kleshas or emotional turmoil, we should immediately put this mind down. We can choose to use the mindfulness-of-breath method, the silent illumination method, or the huatou or gong'an method to allow our wandering, vexed minds to settle down. At this moment, our minds are in accordance with pure buddha-nature.

The Buddha teaches that a single pure thought constitutes a moment of Buddhahood; at that moment, one is a Buddha. The Lotus Sutra expresses this idea clearly when it states that a person can attain Buddhahood by entering a temple and reciting "Homage to the Buddha" just once. However, this person can only be called a "causal Buddha," not a Buddha of the "fruition level." In other words, one who has a single pure thought in consonance with intrinsic buddha-nature is manifesting the causal ground of Buddhahood, which we all possess. However, this is not the same as realizing Buddhahood through the fruition of practice.

When we all develop faith in this truth, goodness will flow from our actions; our world will become a Buddha Land.

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