Thoughts and Talks

Some people think Chan and meditation are one and the same — 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 re-enters 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 one’s 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.

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 speak the truth whereas what others say is false. These positions are based on their religious experiences and the convictions that 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.

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 is the many stories and sayings, called gong’ans (koans) 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, and 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 water as mountains and water. Next one reaches a state where mountains are no longer mountains and water is no longer water. This is the mind of non-discrimination. Finally, even this state is transcended and we again see mountains and water as part of the ordinary world. This is no-mind, but it has embraced the real world. There is no “real” and “false” world.

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.

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 true and ordinary. So, I would say that in Chan there is no mysticism at all!

(From Chan Newsletter No.26, December 1982)

You may have heard it said that Buddhism is not truly a religion but a philosophy. However, religion requires faith and Buddhism cannot be practiced without faith. So Buddhism is indeed a religion. We should understand, however, that faith in Buddhism is different from the faith that emphasizes belief in a God distinct from oneself. The faith that Buddhism stresses is faith in the teachings of the Buddha. These teachings, called Dharma, tell us that everyone inherently has the nature of a Buddha and that everyone can attain Buddhahood. One who truly believes in the teachings of the Buddha and follows the principles and methods of practice can indeed become a Buddha.

When we talk about the origin of Chan Buddhism, we need to distinguish the specific ideas that shaped Chan from those of Buddhism in general. But the fact remains that the highest attainment in Buddhism — to become a Buddha — is also found in Chan. Buddhism emphasizes the cultivation of wisdom, which resolves internal struggles and suffering. But how do we cultivate wisdom? We rely on the guidance of Chan methods, which have their foundation in the teachings of the Buddha.

Buddhism was first brought to China about one thousand years after Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment and introduced the Dharma to the world. During Buddhism’s early period, meditation, or dhyana, was set forth as the primary method of practice. Dhyana is a method for clearing the mind of its illusions, which, in turn, leads to understanding the true nature of the self. This realization is Buddhist wisdom. The teaching of dhyana as a path to wisdom was important to the transmission of Buddhism to China. In fact, the name Chan comes from the word dhyana (pronounced JA-na), just as the word Zen comes from the word Chan.

There are many stories in Chan lore about disciples asking their master such questions as, “What did Bodhidharma bring to China?” As you may know, Bodhidharma was a Caucasian monk who is considered the first patriarch of the Chan lineage. The answers all the masters gave appear to agree on one essential point: Bodhidharma brought to China the message that everyone can become a Buddha. When one disciple asked why, the master replied, “Because it (the Dharma) already existed in China.” The disciple continued, “Then why did Bodhidharma have to come?” The master answered, “If he did not come, people in China would not know that every one had Buddha-nature.” Bodhidharma brought to China nothing but himself, to spread the message that everyone should believe in one’s own Buddha-nature.

The Sixth Patriarch, Huineng (638-713), probably contributed the most to the development of Chan. His teaching, recorded in his Platform Sutra, can be summarized in the phrase: “No abiding, no thought, no form.” This phrase refers to a state of mind in which one perceives one’s own Buddha-nature, but even though we speak of a Buddha-nature we can point to no concrete form that is Buddha-nature. The phrase says that Buddha-nature is the essence of emptiness, or sunyata (Sanskrit). This teaching of “no abiding, no thought, no form” is consistent with the central teaching on emptiness in the Diamond Sutra. So, we see that the ideas of Chan are rooted in the Buddhist scriptures. The Diamond Sutra says that we should not mistake Buddha-nature for something concrete or unchangeable, for then Chan would be indistinguishable from a formal religion based on belief in something external, monolithic and unchanging.

A disciple of Master Zhaozhou (778-897), asked him. “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” The master answered, “Wu,” which means ‘no,’ or ‘without.’ On the surface, this answer seems to contradict the teaching that all beings have Buddha-nature. But we need to understand that Buddha-nature is not concrete or unchanging, and Zhaozhou may have wanted to dispel any such notion this monk may have had. This kind of dialogue, which seems paradoxical, contradictory, even nonsensical, became a method of practice called gong’an (koan in Zen).

Chan Buddhism encompasses four key concepts of faith, understanding, practice, and realization. Faith belongs to the realm of religion; understanding is philosophical; practice is belief put into action; and realization is enlightenment. Without faith, we cannot understand; without understanding, we cannot practice; and without practice, we cannot realize enlightenment. Together, these four concepts create the gateway we can enter to realize wisdom.

We must begin Chan practice, then, with faith that all beings have Buddha-nature. However, we should not think of it as an entity that can be grasped or attained. If we cling to that kind of idea, we will also cling to the idea that a true self exists within us, and in so doing, obstruct our liberation. We accept the existence of Buddha-nature and then let it go, lest it become an obstacle to practice.

We must begin Chan practice, then, with faith that all beings have Buddha-nature. However, we should not think of it as an entity that can be grasped or attained. If we cling to that kind of idea, we will also cling to the idea that a true self exists within us, and in so doing, obstruct our liberation. We accept the existence of Buddha-nature and then let it go, lest it become an obstacle to practice.

Some early Chan masters like Huineng and Nanyue did not encourage prolonged meditation. There is the story about Mazu (709-788) and Master Nanyue (677-744). One day Nanyue observed Mazu meditating. He asked Mazu, “What are you doing?” Mazu replied, “I am meditating.” Nanyue asked, “Why?” Mazu responded, “To become a Buddha.” Saying nothing, Nanyue, picked up a brick and started polishing it with the sleeve of his robe. Mazu asked, “What are you doing?” Nanyue said, “I’m making a mirror.” Mazu asked, “You can’t make a mirror by polishing a brick.” Nanyue replied, “If I cannot make a mirror from a brick, how can you become a Buddha by meditating?” On hearing this Mazu had realization. Later, he became a great master himself.

Does this famous gong’an mean that we need not meditate in order to become enlightened? I have been teaching meditation for many years and have come across quite a few practitioners who do not want meditation to take too much of their time, or cause too much discomfort. To them, I would say, “Unless you are Huineng or Nanyue, you need to meditate.” We may say that enlightenment does not come from meditation, but meditating is nonetheless a necessary step toward liberation. The best way to calm the mind is through meditation. Once the mind is calm, we can reduce the subjective and habitual patterns of self-based notions that cause so much vexation. When we achieve a tranquil or unified state of awareness, it is possible to see just what the self really is.

Chan teaching should work in conjunction with meditation. With the guidance of a good teacher, strong practice, and Chan teachings, enlightenment need not be far away.

(From Chan Newsletter No.103, September 1994)

In order to practice Chan very well, one need to have faith, one needs to arouse angry determination, and one needs to generate the great doubt. If you do not have faith in yourself, then not only will you not get far in the practice, but you will not succeed in anything else. The basis of faith must come from your daily life as well as from an understanding of Buddhadharma.

Understanding Buddhadharma gives rise to faith in yourself because you know that Sakyamuni Buddha was just an ordinary sentient being, and yet he reached Buddhahood. Furthermore, he said that every sentient being without exception can become a Buddha. So faith in yourself is connected to the belief that what the Buddha said must be true, that you can reach Buddhahood.

From historical records, we know that many practitioners, using the methods taught by the Buddha, including the patriarchs of the Chan sect, attained enlightenment. The fact that you are able to practice these methods means that you can also attain enlightenment.

Related to this, not only must you have faith in the Buddha, but also in those who have experience, notably, your master or teacher. But it is quite a difficult thing to have absolute faith in your Shifu (teacher) upon first meeting. Likewise, it is difficult in the beginning to have the confidence that you can definitely reach Buddhahood. Only after deriving some benefit after considerable practice will you be able to believe that you can definitely get enlightened.

That is why I do not require my students to believe in anything at the very beginning. Rather, I just give them certain methods of practice. These methods vary according to the personality and level of practice of each student. And even the same person may be given different methods at different times. Only after students have derived some benefit from using the method will they develop faith in Shifu. At that time whatever method I instruct the student to use, he will go ahead with diligence. Then I will ask them to give up their attachments to their own life, their conceptions of themselves, and their experience. If they can do this, they will be close to the door of enlightenment.

Yet, even after faith is attained, if the student does not bring forth a great determination to reach the goal of enlightenment within a fixed period of time, then in spite of his faith, he will not derive much benefit very quickly. This type of person must put in a long time of gradual practice before he or she can naturally enter enlightenment. Like rowing a boat upstream, unless you keep up your effort, there is a chance you may regress. This is true even if you have had some very good experiences in meditation. But after you practice for a while, you may feel exhausted physically and spiritually. If you don’t doze off while sitting, you find that you cannot summon up any energy. Under these conditions, you may think: “Maybe I’ll take a rest for awhile. If I can’t get enlightened today, then I’ll try again tomorrow. If not tomorrow, anyway, eventually it will happen.” This is called being lax in the practice.

Thus we have a second requirement, namely, great angry determination. This means putting aside all concerns and pushing forward because you are aware that, “If I were to suddenly die, I would fail to accomplish my practice in this lifetime.” With this attitude, you simply must work hard, putting aside any consideration of your own life and death. If a Chan practitioner does not have a very immediate, direct feeling that he or she may die at any moment, then it is difficult for great angry determination to arise. Some students may find my demands unreasonable, especially on retreat, where I may ask them to minimize their sleeping time as much as possible. So long as you are not about to collapse, you should continue working on the method. However, some students simply cannot sustain this kind of practice. In this case, I may take a comforting, alternative approach, suggesting that they should take a good rest until they are completely recovered, and then come back and practice again. Very often, this approach also works and after sleeping, those students will practice even harder and develop great angry determination.

But for those who still cannot manage to bring up this determination, I will say that Shakyamuni Buddha dedicated himself to hard practice for six years because he wanted to save sentient beings from suffering, and after he reached Buddhahood he taught his disciples the method to practice. Likewise, the great Chan masters through the ages all practiced for a great length of time before they got enlightened, and they transmitted these methods and experience down to our generation. Now, enjoying the efforts passed down by enlightened people over a long time, you are very fortunate in so short a time to come in contact with Chan.

Knowing this, if you are still not inspired to practice hard, you should feel shame towards the Chan masters, not to mention the Buddha himself. Furthermore, your parents gave you your precious body and so many other people have contributed to you in various ways. If you do not use your life to practice hard and get some results, you are being unjust to all who have given so much, and there is no way you can repay them.

After one has established great faith and developed great angry determination the third requirement for practice is to “investigate Chan.” In Chinese this is called tsan chan. The purpose is to give rise to the great doubt. This great doubt is not the ordinary doubt of suspicion or skepticism, but in fact, of having absolute faith in the method of practice. The doubt refers to the questioning attitude that one must have in order to investigate Chan. We use the method as a guide to ask ourselves what we originally are. The Buddha said that all sentient beings have Buddha-nature, so why is it that I cannot recognize myself as a Buddha? If I am not a Buddha, then after all, who am I? We do not try to answer these questions using our knowledge, experience, or reasoning. Rather, we continuously ask ourselves until all thoughts suddenly vanish, the mind and environment disappear, and we are naturally in an enlightened state.

(From Chan Newsletter No.14, June 1981)

The Caucasian monk Bodhidharma brought his version of Buddhism to China more than a thousand years after the Buddha’s death, but aside from legends and stories, history says little about the Indian origins of Chinese Chan. The most famous story tells of the Buddha who stood before a large assembly of monks, holding up a flower but otherwise remaining silent. None of the monks understood this gesture except Mahakashyapa, a senior disciple, who simply smiled at the Buddha. Seeing this, the Buddha said: “I have the true Dharma eye, the marvelous mind of nirvana, the true form of the formless, the subtle Dharma gate that does not rely on words or letters but is a special transmission outside the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahakashyapa.” In Chan tradition, this “special transmission outside the scriptures” marked the beginning of master-to-disciple transmission that continues to this day.

Two other stories also illustrate the spirit of Chan present in early Indian Buddhism. The first concerns Ananda, a favorite of the Buddha, who had committed to memory all the Buddha’s teachings. Despite this, he never attained enlightenment during the Buddha’s lifetime. After Buddha’s death, Mahakashyapa gathered an assembly of enlightened disciples to collect and memorize the Buddha’s teachings. Mahakashyapa refused to invite Ananda on the grounds that Ananda was not enlightened. Ananda begged Mahakashyapa to admit him to the assembly, saying, “Lord Buddha has entered nirvana. Now only you can help me reach enlightenment!” Mahakashyapa finally said, “I cannot help you; only you can help yourself.” Finally realizing he had only himself to rely on, Ananda went on solitary retreat where he dropped all his attachments and attained enlightenment.

Another disciple of the Buddha was named Suddhipanthaka, or Small Path, who was dull-witted. Among the Buddha’s disciples, Small Path was the only one who could not remember the Buddha’s teachings. He was given the job of grounds-keeper since he didn’t seem fit to do anything else. After doing this for many years, one day Small Path asked, “The ground is clean, but is my mind-ground as pure?” At that moment all delusions dropped from his mind. The Buddha was pleased at this and affirmed that Small Path had become an enlightened arhat.

The Ananda story illustrates that knowledge and intelligence do not necessarily guarantee enlightenment, while the Small Path story shows that even a dull person can attain sudden enlightenment. These stories show that Chan has less to do with great learning than with freeing the mind from its attachments. This does not mean that Chan bars intelligent people from enlightenment, or that it encourages stupidity. Shakyamuni Buddha, Mahakashyapa, and Shariputra were people of great learning. Rather, Chan has to do with freeing the mind of its attachments.

According to Chan history, the Indian lineage shows twenty-eight generations of transmission from Mahakashyapa to Bodhidharma. It is unlikely that there was only a single line of transmission from the time of Shakyamuni to Bodhidharma’s going to China. In the Chinese Chan lineage, it is also believed that from Bodhidharma to Huineng, only five people received transmission, but the records indicate that Bodhidharma had several enlightened disciples, as did the Second and Third Patriarchs. It appears that belief in single-person, linear transmission stems from the fact that we only recognize the patriarchs as having received the direct transmission. Indeed, some of Huineng’s disciples established their own lineages, but only two survive today, the Linji (Jap. Rinzai) and the Caodong (Jap. Soto).

I am the sixty-second lineage holder of Chan from Huineng and the fifty-seventh generation in the Linji tradition. In the Caodong lineage, I am the fiftieth generation descendant of the co-founder, Master Dongshan (807-869). All the masters before me in this lineage had more than one disciple, but when one traces back one’s lineage, it makes it seem that there were no other disciples.

We should turn to a description of the main styles that characterize Chan practice. The Fifth Patriarch, Hongren (d. 674), had two prominent disciples, Shenxiu (605?-706) and Huineng. The Shenxiu style was based on gradual but diligent practice. Shenxiu used the analogy of keeping the mirror-mind free from the dust of vexation through the practice of virtue; we examine and rectify our behavior, until the self-nature/mirror is clean. This process continues until purity of mind is achieved.

Huineng saw Shenxiu’s view as attributing form and characteristics to the mind. Taking a different stance, Huineng emphasized “giving rise to mind while not abiding in forms.” In other words, there really is no mirror-mind to keep free of dust. Self-nature is originally pure; in fact, it is that of a Buddha, so there is nothing to take away and nothing to add. There is a Chan saying, “As long as there is nothing in your mind, any direction─ north, east, south, or west─ is fine.”

Each lineage has its own rules, style and method of practice, but the goal is the same: a mind free from attachments. There are no definitive standards in Chan, so long as your mind is at peace. If Chan cultivation is to bear fruit, we must understand the four components that shape the entrance through practice:

  • Accept the law of cause and effect, or karma: Difficulties in this life are the result of past deeds. The consequences of causes we have laid down in the past should cause us no sadness or anger today.
  • Accord with conditions: Good fortune and pleasant circumstances are due to meritorious deeds in past lives. When the causes and conditions dissipate, the favorable events will also end. Therefore do not be overly happy or proud when faced with favorable conditions.
  • Practice without seeking: Seeking inevitably results in suffering: Do not seek and you will depart from self-centeredness and gain complete freedom of mind.
  • Practice in accord with Dharma: Realize that the self and all phenomena are inherently empty and pure. This practice is the highest of the four and includes the three mentioned above. It is the practice of directly contemplating emptiness, whereby we help others without clinging to notions of self. We recognize the emptiness of dharmas without rejecting their manifold appearances. Even though our minds are free of attachments, we still work diligently at whatever needs to be done. Before we begin practice, enlightenment may be our motivation, but once on the path, we drop attachment to the idea of enlightenment.

The Platform Sutra of Huineng emphasized a stage-less practice in which, regardless of time and place, the mind makes no distinction between virtue and evil, good and bad, right and wrong. It is thus utterly free from discrimination. This in itself is practice. The mind usually referred to in the Platform Sutra is pure mind, or no-thought, the equivalent of enlightenment. No-thought means that one does not attach to or abide in thoughts. Thoughts and memories occur, but one does not give rise to other thoughts attached to them. The Platform Sutra begins with no-thought and the result is no-form. No-form is the phenomenal aspect of no-thought, in which all dharmas are without characteristics, that is to say, are empty. No-form is one and the same with pure mind and thought, the same as wisdom and enlightenment. Thus, in Huineng’s approach, with no method other than to maintain a mind totally free of discrimination, enlightenment can be attained.

The aim of Chan is to lessen vexation and open the gate of wisdom. This can be approached through daily and periodic practice. Without regular daily meditation, it would be difficult to reduce vexation and cut off attachments. Your mind will not be peaceful. When not meditating, deal with people and situations with a concentrated, content, humble, and grateful mind. I often tell my students to pay attention wherever they are and focus on whatever they are doing at the moment. Live in the present. This too is daily practice. Meditation and daily life are not separate; they go hand in hand.

However, daily practice is not enough. You need periodic, intensive practice as well. Every so often, you should set aside a fixed period of time for the sole purpose of practice, whether alone, or in a retreat context. The benefit of group practice is that practitioners help each other. It is also safer to practice within the group. If you only practice daily without periodic, intensive practice, your practice may be weak. Going on retreat is the best way to strengthen your practice.

(Chan Newsletter No.104 November 1994)