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Tuesday, July 14, 2015
I remember last year a veteran volunteer of Care Service Group asked the Dharma teacher to shed light on a question: “How can we urge and advise devotees afflicted by troubles to ‘let go’?” The monastic replied, “We don’t advise others to ‘let go’ when we ourselves haven’t really experienced and realized ‘letting go’.” Not long ago, I heard a long-time devoted supporter of ours claim: “I’ve achieved letting go.” So, I deeply feel that many people have actually misunderstood and misapplied the Buddhist expression, “letting go” (放下), when they haven’t deeply delved into practice and attained thorough enlightenment. This is why ancient patriarchs and masters seldom used this expression in teaching the Dharma. After all, in our short life of cultivation, understanding our self is already as hard as looking for a needle in a haystack, not to mention entering the stage of letting go of what is “mine,” which is an even longer journey to go.
I was born on a farm in the countryside near Shanghai. At the age of thirteen I left home to become a Buddhist monk. The local monastery I entered, like most others in China, was called a Ch'an temple. But, in fact the theory and practice of Ch'an was almost never discussed there. As young monks, most of us did not have any clear idea of what Ch'an practice really was. Our training simply consisted of the rigorous discipline prescribed for monks ─ everyday activities such as washing clothes, working in the fields, cooking and performing daily services. We also studied major sutras such as the Amitabha, the Lotus, and the Diamond sutras. Daily chores, however were not a problem for me; the worst thing was memorizing sutras. There were so many to master, and I felt very stupid. My master told me, "Your karmic obstructions are very heavy. You should make a strong effort to atone for them. Go prostrate to Kuan Yin Bodhisattva."
In the Sung Dynasty, Ch'ang-lu Tsung-tse 長蘆宗賾 wrote the Tso-ch'an i 坐禪儀, The Manual of tso-ch'an. In it, he said that a person who has just experienced Buddha-nature should continue to practice tso-ch'an. Then it is possible to become like the dragon who gains the water, and the tiger who enters the mountains. The dragon gaining the water returns to his ancestral home, and is free to dive as deep as he wishes. The tiger entering the mountain has no oppsition; he may ascend the heights and roam wherever he wills. So Ch'ang-lu is saying that practicing tso-ch'an after enlightenment enhances and deepens one's realization.
“Leave all previous instructions and experiences outside the Chan Hall” with these words the Retreat Master, Venerable Chang Hui, encouraged the retreatants to come to the retreat with a fresh and open mind uncluttered by what we have heard or experienced before. I began the 7-day retreat with the mind of a newly born baby, at least I tried to do so. This will be my fourth Huatou retreat and I was looking forward to enhance my practice, which often felt a bit disorganized. Sometimes I yearned for the simplicity and linear approach of observing one’s breath. But I was determined to stay with Huatou despite my difficulties.
Once, after the Buddha gave a sermon to his senior disciples, he picked up a flower and without saying anything, held it up before the assembly. All the monks, except one, were mystified. Mahakasyapa alone knew the Buddha's meaning, and saying nothing, smiled. Thus, the Buddha transmitted to Mahakasyapa the wordless doctrine of Mind. Although this incident preceded by over a thousand years the rise of Ch'an, it is often cited as an example of an early kung-an.
The term Mo-chao Ch'an 默照禪, Silent Illumination Ch'an is associated with the Sung Dynasty master Hung-chih Cheng-chueh 宏智正覺(1091-l157). However, the practice itself may be traced back at least as far as Bodhidharma. In his treatise The Two Entries and the Four Practices, the Entry by Principle was described as "leaving behind the false, return to the true: make no discrimination of self and others. In contemplation, one is stable and unmoving, like a wall."
At the beginning of this article we said that the term tso-ch'an had both a comprehensive and a specific meaning. The comprehensive meaning refers to any type of meditation based on sitting, including the fundamental methods and the "outer path" approaches described above. The specific meaning refers to the specific methods developed and used by the Ch'an masters to attain the state of seeing Buddha-nature. This is also referred to as seeing self-nature, wu 無, or in Japanese, kensho. The two major methods of Ch'an which have come down to us are the method of Silent Illumination 默 照 and the method of the kung-an 公案. Each of these methods ultimately led to the founding of a major branch of Ch'an Buddhism, respectively the Ts'ao-tung 曹洞 (Soto) and the Lin-chi 臨濟(Rinzai) schools.
In his Liusu t'an ching 六祖禪經, The Platform Sutra, Hui-neng 惠能 says that if one were to stay free from attachment to any mental or physical realms, and to think of neither good nor evil, that is, refrain from discriminating, neither thought nor mind will arise. This would be the true "sitting" of Ch'an. Here, "sitting", not limited to mere physical sitting, refers to a practice where the mind is not influenced, disturbed, or distracted, by anything coming up, whether internally or in the environment. If you were to experience your self-nature, this would be called "Ch'an" (Kensho in Zen). To see self-nature is to see one's own unmoving Buddha-nature, and is the most fundamental level of enlightenment. Without tso-ch'an in this sense, one cannot attain Ch'an. Hence tso-ch'an is the method, Ch'an the result. Since Ch'an is sudden enlightenment, when it occurs, it is simultaneous with tso-ch'an.
Although the methods of tso-ch'an given above are simple and straightforward, it is best to practice them under the guidance of a teacher. Without a teacher, a meditator will not be able to correct beginner's mistakes, which if uncorrected, could lead to problems or lack of useful results.
A third method of regulating the mind is to focus the attention on the tan-t'ien, which is a point located below the navel. The tan-t'ien is not an organ, but a center of psychic energy similar to the Indian chakras. This method is best employed when your breathing has naturally descended to the abdomen. The technique consists simply in mentally following the movements of the tan-t'ien as the abdomen moves in and out as a natural consequence of breathing. This method is more energetic than the methods of breath counting or following, and should be used only after gaining some proficiency in those methods. In any case, the method should not be forced.
This year, I was fortunate enough to participate in the Chinese New Year celebration that was organized by the Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association at its Vancouver Centre. From the greeters at the door, to the volunteers who were either circling the centre or assisting with the various activities, to the delicious lunch spread that was prepared by the centre’s own kitchen team, everyone was willing to give and share the spirit of Chinese New Year. It was refreshing to see the effort and the organization that went into this event to ensure that it is open to the community as a whole and to see people of all races and backgrounds come together to celebrate this joyous holiday.