Chan Practice and Faith

The Chan school advocates believing in oneself, believing that one can attain Buddhahood, and believing that one is naturally the same as all the Buddhas, not lacking in the least bit. Chan encourages its students to just let go of self-centeredness, so that one can immediately see one’s own original face, and everyone can attain Buddhahood. The original face is the Buddha in one’s self nature; in other words, it is natural and therefore, not obtained through practice. As such, Chan is misunderstood by many because the importance of faith is often overlooked.

The idea we just described is basically correct in theory. But in practice, it is wrong. It is like saying that everyone can become a parent-- but, can a new born baby really be a parent? It hasn’t even grown up yet; it is still a baby, not yet a parent. Can a baby become a parent in the future? It depends. Some people enter monastic life since childhood and practice chastity, thus unable to become parents. Others get married, but are infertile and, therefore, can’t become parents. Thus, it is true that in principle everyone can become a parent; however, in practice, not everyone can become a parent.

Similarly, in a democratic society, every citizen has the right to vote and the right to run for office. However, in practice, most citizens only have the opportunity to exercise their right to vote, and not the opportunity to run for office. Because of individual capabilities and all sorts of conditions, most people only have the opportunity to vote for others, but are never voted for themselves. Therefore, if you just hear that Chan says, “Everyone has Buddha nature”, but in reality, you are nothing close---- just a deluded, ordinary being. Still, you imagine yourself to be equal with completely enlightened Buddhas. You not only refuse to prostrate to Buddha statues, but go on further to scold others for doing so. Still again, you justify it by saying that the present Buddha does not prostrate to past Buddhas; with the Buddha in self-nature, why bother to prostrate to the Buddha images made from clay, wood, and paint?

Such people believe only in the Buddha of the self nature, not any Buddhas that manifests externally. They categorize those who do prostration as having heavy attachments. When seeing others prostrate to the monks, those so- called Chan practitioners shake their heads and sigh, saying, “Don’t even prostrate to the Buddhas, let alone the monks!”

Once, a lay person stopped someone in the middle of prostrating to me, grabbed him and said, “Don’t prostrate! You are doing harm to the Venerable!” Doing harm to me by prostrating to me? I was totally perplexed. I asked, “What do you mean? What harm is he causing me?” He said, “If you are truly an accomplished master: do you need people to prostrate to you? If you need people to prostrate to you, then that’s an indication that you are full of attachment. The more prostrations you receive, the more you feel that you are a great master. You will never obtain liberation and enlightenment this way.” Ah! That kind of makes sense. He continued, “If you are truly liberated, you should admonish him when he prostrated to you: ‘don’t be deluded by the form. There is no form of a self, a person, a living being, or a life span that exists. And, of course, there is no form of a teacher or a disciple. So why prostrate”’“ Eh! This guy is so sharp. I asked him, “Do you prostrate to the Buddha?” He said: “I prostrate to the Buddha within?” I asked, “How?” “I don’t prostrate with the body. I prostrate with the mind.” “How does your mind prostrate?” “When my mind is at ease, when my mind has no attachment, it is prostration.” What he meant was that he didn’t need to prostrate to the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, and that he believed in himself only, and nothing else.

Actually, this is not Buddhism, nor is it Chan; rather, it is a wrong view associated with arrogance and lacking the mind of faith. These people might have achieved a little Chan experience, and grew a sense of confidence out of the arrogance resulting from a small amount of progress in practice. They might have read some specious books about Chan, only to end up getting entangled. They think they are already liberated when they are still alive, but when they die, the best case for them is to enter the realm of heaven. But, due to their lack of faith in the Three Jewels, even though they can enjoy a good life in the realm of heaven, as soon as their good karma is exhausted, they eventually fall into the lower realms. The worst case would be that, with the wrong mindset, they don’t hold the precepts and commit evil deeds often, and they would thus fall into hell as quickly as a shooting arrow. Therefore, the generations of great Chan masters do believe in heaven, hell, the lands of Buddhas, and samsara. They have remarked, “there is no Buddha, no dharma, no sangha, no heaven, and no hell!” only to those who are practicing hard and deeply steeped in Chan practice, yet still have some attachment. This is because if they still have in their mind attachment to the Three Jewels, the heaven, or the hell, they would not attain liberation. However, Chan beginners have to have a clear idea about causes and effects, and clearly see the difference between ordinary beings and saints. Otherwise, non-attachment becomes a false excuse, and the result is a confused, inverted view on cause and effect, as well as mixed-up ideas about the ordinary and extraordinary. After all, an ordinary being is an ordinary being; don’t imagine yourself to be the reincarnation of an ancient Buddha, on the same level with the Buddhas of the past, present, and future.

Chan practice is not just about sitting meditation, and nor is it about expounding grandiose views and being concerned only about enlightenment, or equality with the Buddhas. To uphold and expand Chan, we must advocate faith in the meantime, so that our practice can deepen, and our character can be uplifted. The practice of Chan must include a lessening of self-attachment. To lessen self-attachment, the starting point is to have faith, to give generously, and to uphold precepts. You have to have a sense of shame and humility, as well as a mind of gratitude and repentance, in order to be able to reduce self-attachment. You must believe in the Three Jewels, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the protecting deities, the generations of great masters, and, finally, in one’s own teacher. , If, as a beginner, you do not respect or uphold these basic prerequisites but are, instead, just full of arrogance and self-importance, then you will not attain enlightenment and see self-nature. Don’t even think about it.

Resources: The Keys to Chan (禪鑰, 法鼓全集)
Translation: Shujen, Yeh (Chicago)
Editor: DDM Editorial Team, Keith Brown (Canada)

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