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Is Intelligence a Hindrance to Practice ?

QUESTION:
 
One often reads that Ch'an and Zen masters frown upon intelligence. Master Ta-hui (1089-1163) made fun of scholars, and modern master Suzuki Roshi said that an expert's mind has few possibilities, whereas a beginner's mind is limitless. On the other hand, many Westerners who take up Ch'an practice are initially lured by the intellectual richness of Buddhist philosophy.  Can you explain this seeming contradiction?
 
SHIH-FU:
 
I doubt that, since the earliest days of Buddhism, there has ever been a dull or stupid genuine Ch'an practitioner. Also, I doubt that there has ever been a single person who entered the path of Ch'an practice on blind faith. Most people practice Ch'an as a result of a rational decision. Furthermore, Ch'an does not emphasize pure meditative practice at the expense of intellectual learning.  An intellectual understanding of Buddhadharma, and an appropriate way of life are also foundations of Ch'an practice. If you meditate, but have no idea why you do it, at best your practice will be a shell. It could even be harmful.
 
Ch'an emphasizes personal experience from meditation, but it is also important to have a correct understanding of Ch'an practice and principles. Without understanding the Dharma, a person would get only limited benefit from the practice. For this reason alone, Ch'an is not averse to intelligence.
 
For the most part, Ch'an thought and Ch'an practice are rationally based, and Ch'an does not disregard intelligence. However, the question is why Ch'an masters often seem to put down intelligence and learning.
 
Ch'an masters acknowledge intelligence and learning, but emphasize that they must be transcended. Intellectual knowledge is not ultimate truth. The enlightened state that Ch'an speaks of is beyond thinking, words and symbols. It cannot be described and it cannot be understood through deductive reasoning.

Ultimately, thought and language are man-made, based on symbols. Symbols cannot explain or grasp enlightenment, and one cannot reach enlightenment solely through the use of symbols. It's hard enough using symbols to explain the world around us, let alone as a means to attain enlightenment. Besides, each person views the world differently, with his or her own set of experiences and understanding. Ch'an masters must caution their students that enlightenment cannot be reached, described, or imagined in any purely intellectual way, whether it be by language, thought or symbol. Ordinary words are insufficient. Quoting Sakyamuni is not sufficient. Relying on the words and sayings of the patriarchs is not sufficient. These descriptions are not the reality of enlightenment itself.
 
Ch'an masters teach their students to leave behind all concepts, so they may experience enlightenment for themselves, directly. Most people can intellectually accept this explanation, further demonstrating that Ch'an is a rational approach.
 
I can whet your intellectual appetite with Ch'an philosophy. But when you practice seriously, you cannot rely on knowledge, experience and intelligence. None of it is of any use. It is impossible to practice Ch'an correctly and at the same time hold on to previous ideas. You cannot reflect on this or that saying; you cannot dwell on your experiences, wondering if you have tasted enlightenment. You must leave behind everything. It is the only way to reach enlightenment. In fact, leaving behind everything is itself enlightenment. If there is anything that you still cling to, then you cannot become enlightened.

Intelligence, thoughts, words and language are all attachments that are difficult to let go. If they cannot be left behind, they become obstructions to practice.
 
Ironically, enlightened beings use reasoning, intelligence and language to help others practice. To communicate the benefits of Ch'an, they use tools based on knowledge and experience.
 
Before practice, you need learning, knowledge and experience. The more intelligent you are, the better. After enlightenment, you again need knowledge and experience. During the practice stage, learning is of no use.
 
Ch'an is not anti-intellectual. Most of the Ch'an patriarchs were learned and intelligent. Before enlightenment, such people had only worldly intelligence. After enlightenment, such people had true wisdom. Intelligence before enlightenment is intelligence with attachment. Wisdom is intelligence without attachment.