The Reality of Chan Practice

Summary on The Introduction of the One Hundred Dharmas in Yogacara

(Chan Meditation Center Sunday Dharma Talk)

@Article by Harry Miller
@Photo by Chang Xun
Ven. Changhwa gave a series of talks from October to December, 2020 on Yogacara teachings and doctrines. Yogacara is an important school of Buddhism that emphasizes practice through understanding of perception, cognition, and consciousness. Ven. Changhwa provides extensive background on the history of this important school. She speaks about Asanga and Vasubandhu (both of whom flourished in India in the 5th century CE) who are considered the founders of the Yogacara school; and she covers Xuanzang (7th century CE), the great Tang Dynasty monk who travelled to India from China. Xuanzang studied at Nalanda University in India, learned Sanskrit, and sixteen years after his departure returned to China with a great number of sutras. He translated some of the most important Mahayana sutras and is considered the founder of the Yogacara School in China, where it is called Weishi (唯識), or the Consciousness Only School.

Ven. Changhwa explains that the purpose of Yogacara is to help ordinary sentient beings recognize their own ignorance. Fundamental principles of the teaching include dependent origination (pratityasamutpada), "non-self" (anitya), and that all phenomenal existence is fabricated by consciousness.

The ultimate purpose of Yogacara practice is to transcend the mundane world in order to experience the supermundane world. This "transcendence" is really about a change of mind, not place. Ven. Changhwa poses fundamental questions to us: What is the self? How do we perceive the outside world and what is our relationship to it? What is the origin of life? How and why does it start and end? How do we transcend the self? How do enlightened ones perceive phenomena?

She shows that we can investigate these questions by seeing how our ordinary minds organize the world in terms of concepts, laws, science, philosophy, religion, time and space. In order to show that there are real-world non-Buddhist corroborations to much of what Yogacara practice/doctrine is pointing to, she cites the ordinary-consciousness-transcending experience of Dr. Edgar Mitchell, a scientist and Apollo astronaut who walked on the moon. 

Historically and doctrinally, Yogacara cuts through a variety of other religious concepts and belief systems, including ideas of the soul, a creator God, and the caste system. In terms of psychology, Ven. Changhwa shows that there are some similarities between Western and Buddhist understanding of consciousness, but by including the supermundane world, the scope of Buddhist practice and inquiry is deeper and wider ranging. 

To show the breadth of Yogacara teachings and their usefulness,Ven. Changhwa introduces the 100 dharmas, which is a comprehensive breakdown of how we experience the mental and physical aspects of the mundane and supermundane world. She makes this complicated system of analysis accessible and understandable by taking a top-down approach, first examining the five broadest categories of consciousness, mental factors, forms, and conditioned and unconditioned phenomenon; and then delving into their component parts. 

Additionally,Ven. Changhwa shows how these 100 dharmas and their five sub-groupings directly relate to Western disciplines of psychology, sociology, general science, philosophy and religion. Each of her succeeding lectures covers the five groups in depth and she makes many references to modern psychology and physics. 

Ven. Changhwa's lectures provide an in-depth look at all 100 dharmas, especially the eight consciousnesses and such important topics as karma and dependent origination. She uses many examples from Master Sheng Yen and her own life to help us navigate this complex but very important and useful teaching. Deeper study and mastery of this doctrine can lead us to see things as they are, refrain from bad judgement, calm our minds, and enable us to view the world and ourselves as we never have before. 

For more Dharma talks and activities hosted by Chan Meditation Center, please check here.