Selected Dharma Talks
Bitter Practice From Chan Newsletter No.21, May 1982

Many of the names by which we know Chan masters are not their family names, but Dharma names, bestowed often by followers. Often they were names of mountains where the master settled. These names often reflect the wintry environment of the places where they practiced. Very rarely do we find names associated with summer. Winter, symbolized by falling snow, represents the spirit of Chan, whereas the spirit of summer is quite different. In hot weather it is very easy to feel sleepy and dull-minded, while cold weather, especially in the mountains, is very good for meditation. To give a few examples, one master’s name was “Snowy Peak,” another was named “Snow Cave,” then there was “Snow Ravine,” and “Snow Cliff.” These Chan masters sought out places where there was a lot of snow.

Perhaps someone practicing on a mountain may be sitting poorly and think, “Maybe I will take a break and stroll down the mountain for awhile.” But when there is a heavy snowfall, all the roads are blocked off and if you were to venture out you may end up falling of the mountain to your death. At times like that, even if you don’t want to meditate you still have to meditate. And with snow in every direction not only can’t you go anywhere else but also there is nothing to eat except snow.

Once when Master Ouyi was practicing at Chiu-hwa Mountain there was a tremendous snowstorm. There wasn’t much around to eat and having very few clothes on, he was freezing. He noticed a pine tree that had a few nuts on it, but after eating the nuts he was still cold. So he made a fire with the nutshells. Then he started wondering when the snow would stop falling. The prospects didn’t look very good and the things available to eat would only keep him alive for another day at most, so he thought: “This is it for me; it’s probably my fate to die here.” Originally he hoped to get some food into his belly and find some more clothing to relieve the cold, but as soon as he accepted the fact that he would die, he didn’t feel like eating anymore and his body no longer felt cold. He just sat there waiting to freeze to death. Then he actually did freeze.

After a number of days some people passed by and saw him sitting there, and said, “Hey! What are you doing here? We haven’t seen you for a long time!” When he heard the sound of voices, he opened his eyes and said, “That is strange. I haven’t died yet!”

Another case of bitter practice was Master Xuyun. One time he ran into a blizzard on the road. He had nothing to eat and his body was sick. Then he came upon a small shack on the side of the road. It had walls, but no roof. Nevertheless, he went inside and sat down leaning against the wall where there was a little pile of snow. Like Master Ouyi he sat down preparing to die. The snow piled up higher and higher until he was surrounded completely by snow. But at this point he had already entered into samadhi. Several days later a beggar came by and, brushing the snow out of the way, saw there was someone sitting there. Thereupon he pulled some straw off the walls and made a fire. Then he took out a pot, melted some snow in it and cooked up gruel out of some millet he was carrying. When Xuyun felt that sensation of heat, he revived. He saw somebody making porridge for him to eat, and he did not die after all.

At the Chan Center here we have heat in the winter, fans in the summer, and plenty of food in the refrigerator. Nobody need feel that they are about to die here. That kind of feeling would never come up here. In fact, there is no example in the history of the Chan sect of a patriarch who practiced in such comfortable surroundings as we have. If every one of us takes this spirit of patriarchs as a standard, we will always feel ashamed. We would constantly be aware that we are not practicing hard enough and that our resolve is not sufficiently firm.

Some people have to suffer before they can really begin to work. Without suffering they cannot arouse any strength from the practice. This is because people have a very intimate relationship to pain and suffering. And the thing that is most difficult to accept is death. A practitioner who suffers to the point where he is ready to die is very likely to get power from the practice.

(From Chan Newsletter No.21, May 1982)

From Chan Newsletter No.21, May 1982

Buddha-nature is pure and unchanging. However, we may ask, if sentient beings are originally Buddhas, how did we become impure and how did we fall into ignorance? When we say that sentient beings are originally Buddhas we are stating a universal principle that everyone has the potential to discover their innate Buddha-nature. We often hear the saying, “Anyone can become president of the United States.” This means that any native-born citizen of the United States has the potential to become president. But that does not mean everyone is president. Similarly every sentient being is capable of becoming a Buddha, but not every sentient being has realized Buddhahood.

How did sentient beings originate in the first place? No religion or philosophy has yet answered this question to everyone’s satisfaction. Certainly it would be nice if we began as Buddhas and did not suffer vexation. But Buddhism does not address these questions of origin, and will say only that there is no fixed point in time when sentient beings were created. If we say that God made sentient beings, then many questions arise: Why did He create heaven and hell? Why did He create suffering? Why do sentient beings do evil? Buddhism does not seek to answer these questions; it only tries to answer the question of why sentient beings suffer, and how suffering can be alleviated.

In one of the sutras, the Buddha tells the story of a man wounded by a poison arrow. This man begins to ask all kinds of questions about how he came to be wounded by a poison arrow. The Buddha said that it would be wiser for the man to remove the arrow and begin healing, rather than ask a lot of questions about what kind of poison was used, the lineage of the man who shot him, and so on. Similarly, Buddhism tries to cure the disease of suffering, not to answer philosophical questions.

As to why we do not now have the purity of a Buddha, it is because over countless lifetimes, we have accumulated karma, doubts, and vexations that have clouded our minds with ignorance, or in Sanskrit, avidya. Our inability to recognize our own original Buddha-nature is a result of this ignorance. What then is avidya? Buddhism regards phenomena as occurring in time and space, impermanent, and changing. These qualities are interdependent. For example, a movement in space takes place over time, and both conditions result in a change to our physical and psychological environment. Something that is universal and eternal, however, is unchanging. It is impossible for it to exist “here” and not “there.” Thus, when we say that sentient beings are originally Buddhas, we are referring to their unchanging Buddha-nature, not the local, temporary, and changing vexations that manifest as experience.

Let’s use the analogy of space: space is originally unchanging but when enclosed by a container — round or square, large or small — the space seems to take on the shape of the container — it becomes round or square, large or small. Actually, the space itself remains unchanged; it just temporarily takes on the appearance of the container. Similarly, when the ordinary mind responds to a stimulus in the environment, its mental content changes accordingly and there is a potential for vexation to arise. This is avidya, a mental state of moment-to-moment change, which remains ignorant of the real nature of phenomena.

Ignorance has been present since time without beginning, causing sentient beings to continue the cycle of birth and death. But ignorance itself is not eternal, universal, or permanent. It is a space-time phenomenon that is continually in flux. When we use our practice to bring our minds to an unmoving state, avidya — in the form of greed, hatred, and ignorance — will not have a chance to arise. In this state, our unchanging Buddha-nature has a chance to be revealed. When our minds are not excited or tempted by the environment, ignorance does not exist for us. There is only Buddha-nature.

Until we completely remove all ignorance, we continue to discriminate and use a mind limited by avidya to contain that which has no limits. When ignorance and its containers are removed, only the universal, unchanging Buddha-nature, also called tathagata, remains. Ignorance, on the other hand, has no original existence; it can only exist conditionally. If it had true existence, it would not be in a state of constant change.

The analogy of water and waves is used in the sutras to illustrate this point. In the absence of wind, water is still and calm but when the wind blows, waves form. The waves are the same substance as the water, but originally they did not exist. In this same way ignorance did not originally exist, until blown by the winds of the individual’s karma. In this analogy, water is the ever-existing tathagata; waves are ignorance. Water can exist without waves but waves must have water to exist.

As I said earlier, when we say that sentient beings are originally Buddhas, we are speaking in terms of principle and potential. If we say that Shakyamuni was the Buddha, and he died twenty-five hundred years ago, we are speaking of the historical Buddha who took on the appearance of ignorance to help sentient beings. The real Buddha, the tathagata, is eternal. He never came, and he never left. The Buddha took a human form so that he could speak on the level of the sentient beings. Free from avidya, the Buddha only reflects the ignorance of sentient beings.

To reach the universal, eternal and unchanging requires a great deal of faith and practice. On the basis of faith, people can say that they have met the Buddha. This is also true when we have gained some benefit from practice. However, when most people make such a statement, they only have an intellectual understanding of what it means to meet the Buddha. Unless your religious convictions are strong, you won’t be able to directly experience Buddha-nature. Most Buddhists seek a spiritual life but don’t necessarily want to see the Buddha. Those who want understanding will only see the Buddha as light or sound. Those whose religious faith is strong will definitely see the Buddha.

(From Chan Newsletter No.31, August 1983)

From Chan Newsletter No.26, December 1982

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)

From Chan Newsletter No.103, September 1994

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)

From Chan Newsletter No.27, February 1983

The purpose of Compassionate Contemplation is to help us eliminate anger and arouse the desire to alleviate suffering in others. Someone who practices compassionate contemplation with a mind of bodhi would seek to help sentient beings free themselves from bodily and mental suffering, and if causes and conditions are right, to help them derive happiness from the Dharma and ultimately to reach nirvana. There are five aspects to compassionate contemplation. The first is to contemplate sentient beings in terms of how we see them as beneficial to us, harmful to us, or neither beneficial nor harmful. We contemplate our relationships to others to better understand how we can help them.

The second aspect is to contemplate oneself. When we interact with sentient beings we respond with feelings of like or dislike. We investigate why we have these feelings. Most times, these feelings are based upon the perceived benefit or harm an interaction will have upon us. However, if we understand that mind is merely an unending succession of ever-changing sense impressions and delusory thoughts, we would see no need to be attached to them, and no reason to like or dislike our interactions with others.

The third aspect of compassionate contemplation involves investigating what really happens in our interaction with sentient beings. We should contemplate these interactions in terms of the contact of one body with another. We see that praise and rebuke are only sounds or vibrations entering our ears. A smile or a frown is only light rays perceived by our eyes. Just as the body is illusory, so are these external phenomena illusory. Once we realize this, we no longer need to give rise to feelings of like or dislike, and we will treat all sentient beings as equal.

At this point, however, there is still no true compassion. How can we feel compassion towards beings that possess an illusory self? The fourth aspect of compassionate contemplation again involves the contemplation of sentient beings. However, this time the contemplation focuses on their suffering and the reason for their suffering, which is that they are ignorant of the true nature of the self. They don’t know why they do things; they may feel happiness or anger without knowing why they feel that way. They are attached to things and are fearful of loss. These things cause people to suffer. We should also realize that sentient beings are not really free in body and mind and that this is another cause of their suffering. People know that they shouldn’t do certain things but do them anyway. Sometimes it seems we have two selves, each struggling towards different ends. Sentient beings are born, grow old, get sick, and eventually die. In the very short life span, each sentient being endures all kinds of afflictions of body and mind. Because of the suffering they undergo we should have compassion for them.

The fifth aspect of compassionate contemplation also entails contemplating sentient beings, but now we view them as equals, not as beneficial, harmful, or neutral. This is done by realizing that our relationships with sentient beings are neither fixed nor unchanging. We cannot say that those with whom we now share affinity were not once our enemy, or vice versa. There is no definite, unchanging relationship of closeness or adversity. Seen from the perspective of the past, present, and future, all sentient beings have had some interaction with each other in the past, and probably will have in the future. From this point of view we can see all sentient beings as equal to ourselves, and can feel compassion for them.

(From Chan Newsletter No.27, February 1983)

From Chan Newsletter No.23, August 1982

A woman on a retreat I gave said that the more she thinks about her shortcomings and why she can’t get rid of them, the more disgusted she is with herself. She said, “Probably I just don’t have the ability to practice meditation.” As I stood in front of her, the light overhead cast my shadow on the wall. I asked her, “When I am standing still, is my shadow moving?” She said, “No.” Then I walked slowly away, and the shadow followed me along. I walked quickly and the shadow kept pace with me. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get rid of it. Like the shadow that sticks to us, wherever there is a self, there will be problems. But if you were to say, “I want to throw away my ‘self’,” that “I” who wants to get rid of the self is still there. This amounts to the self trying to throw away the self, which is impossible. It would be like trying to get rid of the shadow while your body is still there.

This being the case, is meditation useful? Of course it is, since we can make progress. Wanting to be rid of one’s faults may be a good thing, but practice does not consist in disowning one’s faults because the self would still be there. No, the proper method is to decrease the importance of the self in your life, until it becomes so light that your fault will naturally diminish. We practice meditation not to seek anything but to discover the faults in our character and behavior. By opening ourselves to self-investigation, we hope to find out where our problems lie. If after searching within ourselves, we can see those faults and problems, then this in itself is the fruit of the practice.

However, you cannot be overly anxious to achieve fast results. According to Buddhadharma, it is possible to become enlightened even in one lifetime. But to completely eliminate afflictions and purify vexations takes three incalculable eons. Since our life is only a few decades long, we cannot expect to attain all that within one lifetime. Perhaps some people may feel: “Well, if I can’t attain it in this life, it doesn’t really seem worth it to practice.” Actually, from the time of Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment, no one else has attained supreme Buddhahood. The rest of us are just following his example, practicing. You should just concentrate on cultivating your own field. Of course you can try to calculate how much fruit you will attain from your labors, but it won’t be accurate, and there’s no need to do that. Just plant the seeds and eventually you will reap the harvest.

What about getting rid of vexations by purposely seeking out suffering and pain? If you have gotten good results from a retreat, that is very good. But even if you just passed the week in pain and suffering, you have still gotten something out of the retreat. At least you are paying off karmic debts. However, I know a practitioner who believed that she could melt away karma by purposely sitting there in pain. She also thought she could melt away other people’s karma by taking on their pain. This is a wrong attitude.

Removing karmic obstruction is not done by purposely looking for hardship. Pain will come by itself; to look for it is misguided. This is like standing before a judge who just sentenced you for a crime you committed. If you slapped yourself in the face a few times and told the judge, “No need for a jail sentence, your honor, I just punished myself,” would the judge suspend your sentence? Striking yourself will not get your sentence suspended. You must still receive legal retribution for your misdeed.

Similarly, it is useless to deliberately punish yourself in order to reduce obstructions. The purpose of cultivation is to train our mind, not to experience suffering. However, in the course of practice, if pain and suffering come of themselves, we should accept them. So, although we should accept suffering as a form of retribution, neither should we seek it out. Otherwise, we may even increase our obstructions instead melting them away.

(From Chan Newsletter No.23, August 1982)

From Chan Newsletter No.101, June 1994

The Buddha said that our consciousness of waking life is a dream. Especially if it offers contentment and happiness, perceiving life as just a dream may be difficult, No one wants to be awakened from a pleasant dream, let alone be told that life is an illusion. But how can we distinguish between dreaming and waking? According to the Buddha, sleep is made up of short dreams, whereas life is a long dream. You may awaken to the fact that you are living a dream, and then fall back into the dream once again. In Buddhism, awakening from the long dream of life means finally realizing your self-nature. A sentient being who does not experience this realization remains forever in a dream.

We think of our dreams as unreal and believe our waking moments to be reality. But when we recognize the illusory nature of the body, of the world, of life and death, we then see that both sleeping and waking are equally dreamlike states.

A famous Chinese photographer, Lang Jing-shan, takes pictures of the areas around the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, and makes them resemble Chinese “mountain and water” paintings. The whole image becomes an impression built from fragments. This is how our minds work. Our experiences are stored as fragments in the subconscious mind. We never remember experiences in their entirety, but rather in bits and pieces. At a certain time or place, the fragments may reappear in our consciousness. And so it goes when we dream.

We all have experiences of déjà vu and thoughts that trigger feelings and responses. But like impressionistic photographs, these responses are merely fragmentary, illusory reflections of our experiences, thoughts, and fantasies. Few people know when they are dreaming; fewer still want to wake up from a pleasant dream. Someone who has not yet seen their self-nature may think they are very much awake, that life is real and without suffering. When they recognize the illusory nature of the self, they realize they have only been dreaming a very long dream, one that is marked by suffering. But relatively few people appreciate that recognizing the illusory nature of everyday life requires serious daily practice. It is not enough to merely listen to my words, read a book, or reach an intellectual understanding of the concept. Many have heard about Buddhist practice, but few want to really commit to it. Still rarer is the person who practices, awakens from the dream, and, rather than falling back into the dream, comes to realize his self-nature.

A well-known Chinese folktale, Dream of the Millet, tells the story of a young man who traveled to a capitol city to take the civil examination to become a government official. On the road he met an old man who was cooking millet. The old man saw that the young traveler was tired, gave him a pillow, and told him to rest. The young man lied down and fell into a long dream in which he achieved the highest score in the examination. In the dream, he married a princess and became the prime minister at the imperial court. He kept many concubines, and by the time he reached his hundredth year, had too many children to count. He enjoyed his long life and even in old age he did not want to die. But when the time came for him to die two demons took him to the underworld because he had abused his bureaucratic power and embezzled court funds. He was punished by the judge of the dead and made to climb a mountain of knives, after which he was thrown into a vat of boiling oil. He felt a tremendous pain and screamed. Just then the old man woke him up and told him that the millet was ready.

It had only taken two hours to prepare the millet, but in the dream the young man experienced the passing of a hundred years. Time passing quickly is a common experience, not only in dreams, but also in daily life. Sometimes we have dreams that seem very long but which really last only a few minutes of waking time. Differing perceptions of time also occur when we do sitting meditation. If your legs hurt and you can’t concentrate, the time seems to crawl, but if your legs feel fine and concentration is not a problem, the time flies.

Dreams are by nature illusory and passing, and our consciousness of time and reality also passes like a dream. But it is a mistake to think that our actions in waking life are as inconsequential as those in dreams. We may not have to suffer the consequences of our actions in dreams, but we cannot avoid those consequences in waking life. Our actions and speech create strong and lasting effects that do not fade away as easily as dreams do. This is the principle of cause and effect, or karma.

Most people think that they are not responsible for their thoughts if they do not act on them. All of us have bad thoughts we never actually act on. Even the most devoted mothers sometimes think harmful thoughts about their difficult children. For the most part, we do not believe these thoughts break the Buddhist precepts, but for a bodhisattva, harboring evil thoughts is tantamount to breaking the precepts. Few people think about striking or killing someone when they sit in meditation. But in their sleeping dreams and the course of daily life, violent and murderous thoughts may arise quite often. Anyone who practices regularly, who adopts the attitude of a bodhisattva, needs to let go of such ideas both in sleep and in daily living.

In dreams people often think non-virtuous thoughts or do non-virtuous deeds because such thoughts already reside in their minds. But truly advanced practitioners do not dream of wrongdoing, just as they do not break the precepts while awake. This equivalence is called correspondence of thought and action. Non-correspondence, on the other hand, implies that a person does not break the precepts while awake, but still has wrongful thoughts when dreaming. An anecdote offers a useful analogy. Several years ago, an electrical blackout plunged one of my classes into darkness. The students all began to shout and laugh, because in the darkness, their hidden minds emerged. They exhibited self-control in the light, but felt free in the darkness.

Although we may understand that our lives are vain, unreal, and dreamlike, we still bear responsibility for this sleeping and waking dream. Just as the activity of the body creates karma, so does the activity of the mind. For example, if you do not know someone is behind you, you might accidentally step on his foot and then apologize. In such a case you would not feel as though you had done anything particularly wrong. Likewise, according to a bodhisattva’s perspective, the acts of the body are not serious, but those of the mind are. For ordinary sentient beings, however, the karma of the body is more serious than that of the mind.

Because the bodhisattva way is based on mental realization, we should understand that karma caused by the body means little compared to karma created by the mind. So, we should pay attention to our mental behavior and take responsibility for it. We must make our minds simple, peaceful and tranquil. Sincere and rigorous practice lets us calm both body and mind, which in turn allows us, day by day, to reduce our karmic obstructions.

(From Chan Newsletter No.101, June 1994)

From Chan Newsletter No.20, March 1982

How we perceive “existence” and “emptiness” can reveal how shallow or deep our practice is. We need to understand this to avoid getting stuck, and to be able to make progress. Before we have gained some real benefit from practice, we perceive phenomena as real and existent. In this ordinary state of mind, the “self” is still deeply embedded in things: “my” body, “my” house, “my” friends, and so on. After practicing well, we may reach a state of concentration where there are only a few thoughts in our mind. At this time, the sense of self is lessened, and we may feel that we have finally cast away the world and everything in it. “I have thrown off all thinking.” “I am enjoying the bliss of liberation.” “I feel so carefree and light.” Dwelling on feelings of liberation and happiness like this only means that one’s perception of “emptiness” is false and one still sees phenomena as existent.

When one reaches the state of only one thought, or one-mind, one may feel unified with the universe and that one’s powers are unlimited. One also feels great sympathy and compassion for all sentient beings. At this point one is at the stage of “double affirmation,” or a deeper level of existence. Although there is an expanded sense of self, this sense is not “selfish” but rather, one feels a sense of energy and responsibility. The degree of mental power depends on the strength of one’s previous practice. One who is not backed up by a strong practice can still reach one-mind but will not have as great a sense of energy and responsibility — will not likely give rise to the feeling of being a savior. Therefore great religious leaders are a rare occurrence in human history.

At the next stage of no-thought, or no-mind, one is said to be in the state of “double negation” in that one takes emptiness itself as empty. If a person is attached to emptiness (as in stage two), it is called “stubborn emptiness” or “illusory emptiness.” But at the stage of no-mind one actually recognizes that even this emptiness is empty. Since one has emptied out emptiness, then existence is re-asserted, but it is an existence of non-attachment. One will definitely not feel that his world is meaningless, nor, if asked “How is your practice doing?” will one give a reply like “Oh, It doesn’t really matter if I practice or not.”

We usually feel something “exists” when we have strong feelings about it. If emptiness is also based on feelings and emotions, then it is not true emptiness. It is only when, not bound by feelings and emotional attachments, one genuinely experiences things as existing just as they are, that is, at the same time genuinely existent and also genuinely empty. For practitioners, only this can be considered the first level of entering the door of Chan.

Question: Can progress in practice be described as a series of negating one’s previous stage of attainment and affirming something new?

Sheng Yen: In actual fact the previous stage and what you are affirming now are not two different things. We say that vexations are just bodhi — that is, they are not two separate things. So “negation” is not saying that you have to detest or get rid of vexations before you give rise to wisdom. Nor can you achieve nirvana by negating samsara — they are one thing. It is only that in the process of the practice one’s perception of it varies [according to one’s experience].

(From Chan Newsletter No.20, March 1982)

From Chan Newsletter No.12, March 1981

Do mind and matter genuinely exist? If we were to analyze them thoroughly, we would see that their existence is only temporary. But does this mean that mind and matter do not actually exist? If we were to break time down into all its separate moments, we would see that actually time does not exist. This is also true of space. If we kept cutting it up into smaller and smaller parts, we would not find the actual existence of space. But on the other hand, the connection between different moments in time does exist and spatial relationships between objects also exist. Do mind and matter genuinely exist? If we were to analyze them thoroughly, we would see that their existence is only temporary. But does this mean that mind and matter do not actually exist? If we were to break time down into all its separate moments, we would see that actually time does not exist. This is also true of space. If we kept cutting it up into smaller and smaller parts, we would not find the actual existence of space. But on the other hand, the connection between different moments in time does exist and spatial relationships between objects also exist.

Therefore, people who do not understand Buddhadharma may have one of two false ideas about emptiness. The first, emptiness from a temporal point of view, is called “the emptiness of termination and extinction.” Those who hold this view think that things just arise and vanish spontaneously, without events in the past causing results in the present and without events in the present causing results in the future. This is emptiness of temporal relationship. The other kind of false idea of emptiness can be called “the weird sense of emptiness.” This is emptiness from a spatial point of view: one sees the phenomena as completely illusory, therefore not to be taken seriously. It is very likely that people who hold either of these two false conceptions will have moral or ethical problems, and may lack a central focus in their lives.

From the point of view of Buddhadharma, emptiness is much different. Buddhism believes that whatever was done in the past caused a result in the present, and whatever is done in the present will cause a result in the future. But if we split time into its many segments, then existence can only be true for that segment. It is not real in that sense. And since time is constantly changing, causes are changing, and the effects are also changing. There isn’t any certain unchanging consequence, nor is there any certain unchanging cause. Therefore it is void, but cause and effect are still there.

Question: In Buddhist works they say that nirvana is not an effect that can be attained through some kind of cause. If nirvana is supposed to be the state of true reality, it seems that someone who reaches this state is exempt from cause and effect. Is this so?

Sheng Yen: Nirvana is not a thing; nirvana is when you personally experience, and understand, and recognize that everything is void, or empty. Through the practice, you gradually come to experience that there is no real space or time that you can hold on to. So you can say that nirvana is the result of practice, but it is not a result of something changing into something else. If certain things happen, we cannot say that these things didn’t happen. If we simply ignore the fact that these things happened, then we fall into the view called “the weird sense of emptiness.” But on the other hand we also realize that whatever happens is not something eternal or unchanging. So there is no need to take it too seriously or to be attached to it. If we are attached to it, that is a vexation.

If you hold on to the false views of emptiness and if you deny the law of cause and effect (karma), then you are in a very dangerous position. You may think that all phenomena are unreal and you don’t have to practice morality. With this lack of responsibility, you will create a lot of evil karma and you will suffer the consequences. Being attached to existence will give you vexations, but being attached to the false views of emptiness will give you even greater problems. If, seeking to avoid the attachment to existence, you fall into the trap of the false views of emptiness, then that is like being afraid of getting drowned and jumping into the fire. From the Buddhist point of view, we take the Middle Way, that is, in emptiness there is existence and existence itself is empty.

Question: Does a practitioner necessarily have to go through times when he has the two false conceptions of emptiness?

Sheng Yen: Not necessarily. It depends on whether he or she gets proper guidance. It may happen, especially to people without a good foundation in Buddhism. One student, after returning home after her first retreat, felt that life was very gloomy and meaningless. She felt like giving away everything, breaking all contacts with the world, and just practice by herself. Later, she borrowed and read many books from the Center, and by the third retreat, her attitude changed and she really opened up to life and the world. Others have gone through a similar stage. The reason is that through hard practice these people experienced a deep feeling of emptiness without, however, having enough understanding of Buddhism as a basis.

Question: Where does the feeling of a deep sense of loneliness come from?

Sheng Yen: People who cannot connect themselves with the outside world in terms of space and time, who do not understand cause and effect, and causes and conditions, will feel lonely. When I was in solitary retreat, I knew that I was together with all sentient beings in innumerable worlds. Even though I seemed to be alone in a small, enclosed room, actually I was in company with many ants that found their way inside, and insects outside of the hut created all kinds of sounds in the evening. When I opened the sutras, people thousands of years in the past were talking to me. How could I feel lonely? Some people think that I must feel lonely being a monk without any wife or children. Not at all. I have the five precepts and the ten virtuous deeds as my wife and my children are all the people with whom I have developed a karmic affinity, and who call me Shifu (Teacher). It is only people who isolate themselves and cannot establish a relationship with the outside world will feel lonely. If you keep yourself enclosed, even if you live among thousands of people you will still feel very lonely. However, if you keep yourself open, then even if you are living alone, you will still have a very full life. So, open your mind and treat everyone you meet as your intimate, virtuous friend.

(From Chan Newsletter No.12, March 1981)

From Chan Newsletter No.46, June 1985

A Christian person I met told me, "I have some understanding of Buddhism, but it seems like a muddle to me. There are so many bodhisattvas, arhats, and deities, how do you decide which one to pray to? There's the Buddha, Guanyin, Manjusri, Amitabha. It must be very difficult to decide whom to turn to when you have a problem. Being Christian is very simple. Whatever the problem, you just pray to God." There is some confusion here, but from this Christian’s point of view Buddhism seems to be polytheistic. When you look at it, in other ways Buddhism may seem to be monotheistic and in some ways even atheistic. These various characteristics and viewpoints, at least on a superficial level, appear to be contradictions.

First we must affirm that according to Buddhadharma, all sentient beings are equal with Shakyamuni Buddha and the Buddhas in possessing Buddha-nature. This is a fundamental principle of Buddhism. Nor should it be understood that some Buddhas are higher than others, that a Buddha dwells at the top, followed by bodhisattvas, arhats, deities, heavenly beings, and so on down to humans and animals. In Buddhism, all beings, including Buddhas, are equal. This is not to say they are identical — each being has a different level of ability; each will put forth a varying degree of effort.

One person may achieve more than another by exerting greater effort in what they do. In Dharma practice, we can say that someone may have started earlier and worked harder than another. He or she may achieve greater merit, power and wisdom, and will be closer to Buddhahood than someone not as diligent. Those with more wisdom and strength should help those who are less fortunate. Such is the case within a family. So it is through the whole universe: beings of greater ability should help those with lesser ability. Deities and heavenly beings help humankind, while they are in turn helped by arhats and so on, through the bodhisattvas and the Buddhas.

Since Buddhism does not believe in a supreme, all-powerful God, it would seem that we have a polytheistic view. In polytheism there is an ordering of the universe where various domains are divided among greater and lesser gods and deities. Each god has his or her rank and sovereignty. The god of fire has the highest power over fire, and so it is with the gods of water, winds, and mountains. Each god rules supreme in his domain. According to certain beliefs in Greece, India, and China, you may find a god or deity associated with rivers, mountains, and trees. There may be one god who is highest or several gods who contend for supremacy. But Buddhist teaching is really quite different from this.

Other religions emphasize faith and conversion, but Buddhism emphasizes causes and conditions: if you do not accept the Dharma now, you may in the future, and in the future you will become a Buddha. Some object: "I don't believe in your religion and still you insist that I will become a Buddha!" I say, "I am not a follower of your religion and you may consider me to be a disciple of Satan, but even though you don't follow my religion, I still consider you a future Buddha."

Buddhist culture and society do show signs of what may appear to be polytheism. In China, a childless wife may pray to Guanyin (Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara) for a child. In Japan a woman in similar circumstances might pray to the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbharaja. Thus Chinese and Japanese pray to different bodhisattvas for the same purpose.

But the sutras say that all Buddhas have the same wisdom and power, and any bodhisattva can respond to any problem. These beings may manifest different characteristics, but that is because of the vows they have made. Thus Kshitigarbharaja made his great vow to liberate even sentient beings in hell. Avalokiteshvara is known for his great compassion, Manjusri for his great wisdom. But there is no need to choose a particular bodhisattva for help with a particular problem.

In this sense Buddhism is not polytheistic at all. A practitioner develops according to his karmic roots, causes and conditions, and method of practice. He may pray to Manjusri, Avalokitesvara, or Ksitigarbharaja, but it is as a method of practice. He does not regard each bodhisattva as a separate deity and therefore pray to them all for maximum benefits. That would be polytheistic. Not everyone fully realizes this. There are visitors to the Chan center who prostrate first to the statue of the Buddha, then to the statues of Avalokitesvara and Manjusri on either side of the Buddha. Depending on what is in these people’s minds, they may see the three bodhisattvas as separate gods.

Is Buddhism monotheistic then? For the purpose of practice, it is useful to classify enlightened beings according to their attainment as arhats, bodhisattvas, and Buddhas. The highest goal we set for aspiration is the Buddha, but our essence is that we are all the same as the Buddha. In sentient beings, including all animals, this is called Buddha-nature. For non-sentient beings, this essence is called Dharma-nature. Someone who has attained Buddhahood also has attained the Dharma Body, which includes Buddha-nature as well a Dharma-nature. While this Dharma Body pervades all beings, only sentient beings may attain Buddhahood. With the foundation of all beings, sentient and non-sentient, being the Dharma-body, the whole universe is in unity.

The Buddha sees all sentient beings as future Buddhas, so in a sense they are his offspring. However, while being the most perfect of beings, a Buddha does not have the authority of a supreme God. In this respect Buddhism is different from monotheism. But if sentient beings are not separate from the Buddha, why can't the Buddha control the actions and fates of all beings? The reason is because sentient beings have their own karma. Even though sentient beings are part of the Dharma Body, a Buddha cannot influence the course of someone’s karma.

Christians speak of being "brothers within the Lord." I once asked some Christians, if God created the universe, how could anybody be outside of the Lord? One of them replied, "From a theological standpoint everyone is within the Lord, but those who do not believe do not return to the Lord." So in a sense there are brothers who are not within the Lord. I am just trying to point out that even in traditional monotheism there can be inconsistencies.

I meet people who say something like, "Since I'm not a Buddhist, from your point of view, I am a man standing outside the gate." To them I answer that there is no gate. Every sentient being has Buddha-nature and will become a Buddha in the future. We are never separate from the Buddha, so it makes no sense to speak of being outside the gate.

Now we get to the question whether Buddhism is non-theistic or atheistic. First, both these terms apply to people who believe in nothing outside of matter. Such people do not believe in spirit or any supreme power in the universe; they do not believe in any realms that transcend this material world. A second meaning of non-theism is that the universe is not ruled by a unique, all-powerful God. Yes, there are deities, but not one unique God who controls the universe. This form of non-theism is found only in Buddhism.

The materialist form of non-theism can be terribly costly to life and society. They believe that once the body dies, life ends and there is no future life. Non-theists are not necessarily bad; they may have ethical principles and be concerned about people of later generations. But there are many others who don't share these concerns, and who have no fear about the consequences of their actions.

(From Chan Newsletter No.46, June 1985)

From Chan Newsletter No.24, September 1982

Ming dynasty Chan Master Hanshan Deqing (1546-1623) [not to be confused with Hanshan, the Tang dynasty poet] taught people to practice by letting go of thoughts as they arise in the mind. Whenever a thought arises, immediately let it go. This does not mean resisting or rejecting the thought; it just means ignoring it. So, if you are not getting anywhere in your meditation, the reason is probably that you are unable to let go of your thoughts. Even when you are paying very close attention to your method, stray thoughts may appear. This is very common, especially in the beginning. But rather then letting it disturb you let it be a cause of your working harder on the method.

The first problem with stray thoughts is that the more you try to reject them, the more they will appear, because the effort to reject them is itself a stray thought. This is like flies hovering around a plate of sweets. If you shoo them away, they will be back the moment you take your attention off the plate. The best way to deal with this is simply to ignore the wandering thoughts, and eventually they will go away, just like the flies.

The second problem is not being aware that you are having stray thoughts. By the time you become aware, you are already following a whole new train of thoughts other than the method. This is like dozing while riding a horse that leaves the path to go grazing. By the time you wake up, you are already off the path. This type of wandering thought is most likely to happen when you are mentally or physically tired.

When you realize you have wandering thoughts, don’t get upset. Anxiety will just cause more thoughts to appear. Instead of regretting that you were immersed in wandering thoughts, just let them go; relax your mind and go back to your method. To practice letting go, first, let go of the past and future and just be in the present. That is not as easy as it sounds, since stray thoughts usually are connected with the past or the future. But even if you are able to let go the past and the future, at some point, you must also let go of the present. Letting go of the present has two aspects: the external, meaning the environment; and the internal, which consists of your body as well as your mind. First we must give up the outer environment because contact with it through our senses will lead to sense impressions, which can lead to thoughts. If we weren’t aware of anything outside it would be impossible for thoughts to even arise. The temperature, cars, birds, wind, people walking, light or darkness, the sound of someone breathing, all influence you to give rise to stray thoughts. Since it is normally impossible to meditate where there are no outside impressions, the best thing is to let go of sensations coming from the environment. Until you reach the point of concentrating only on your mind and your body, you will hear noises from outside, but just drop them as they rise.

After letting go of the environment, let go of yourself beginning with the body. Long ago, there was a Chan practitioner who always fell asleep while meditating. To cure the problem, he placed his meditation seat on a rock at the edge of a cliff. He knew that if he dozed off he would fall into the ravine. A person like this will practice very well because he is prepared to die if he does not practice well. So, if you’re always worried about all kinds of bodily discomfort — being hot or cold, pain in the legs, itching, and so on — and indulging your body at every turn, then you will never enter a good condition of meditation. Some people may think it would be easier to let go of the body than the environment, but it is extremely difficult not to pay attention to your body. When you itch, it seems the longer you try to endure it, the worse it gets. So you think that if you just scratch it, the itch would go away. But once you give in and scratch, another part of your body will itch. If you can just ignore it, the itch will eventually go away. Similarly, to deal with pain you should not tense up, as that will make your whole body painful. Just relax and isolate the pain and think, “It’s just my knee that’s hurting; that has nothing to do with the rest of me.” Better, just observe the pain with the attitude of tolerant non-concern with your body.

Observing your pain may make it seem more painful, but eventually it will disappear. After doing this, you will be able to return to your method with better concentration. If you just keep single-mindedly on the method, eventually you will forget even the existence of your body. When there is neither environment nor body, there is still one thought left, awareness of the self. The final step is to let go of even that, and that would be letting go of the mind.

(From Chan Newsletter No.24, September 1982)

From Chan Newsletter No.16, August 1981

(Informal talk spoken by Master Sheng-Yen during an outdoor picnic.)

Within the confines of your own home you may feel you are the master but if many others live there, the sense of being in your own space begins to diminish. When you go into the country, the expanse of sky and the earth form one big universal house and you can feel very small. At the same time, in that great open space you would feel that all nature is yours, and even with other people there, you still feel a sense of spaciousness. Therefore, after a period of staying indoors, people should go outside and experience, on the one hand, the smallness of themselves, and on the other, the largeness of themselves. In reality, our sense of largeness or smallness is entirely relative to how we see our surroundings.

Hanshan, a famous poet of the Tang dynasty, wrote that the clouds were his blanket, a rock was his pillow, and the earth was his bed. Because of his spacious attitude, though he owned nothing, there was also nothing that was not his. Such a person can live very freely and easily, without vexations.

Since people might feel a bit lonely coming out into nature by themselves, they tend to go out in groups. But often they just transplant their own little world out into the big world, and they still feel separation: “I’m with these people, not with those.” We should not be like a snail that carries its house on its back and shrinks back into it when another creature comes along. It is better not to put people into categories based on your social distance from them, whether or not you know them. It is also good to feel intimate with creatures around you — the birds, butterflies, and so on. Just as smoke from a chimney disperses into the air, we should disperse our sense of “group” or “family” and truly participate in the life around us.

If we come out here and just talk about the same things we talk about all the time, we may as well have stayed at home. When we visit nature we should put down everyday small talk, subjective mental activity, judging and discrimination, and just open up and observe nature. Starting from the time of the Buddha, it was almost always the custom for those who have left home life to spend some time practicing in the mountains. Generally the hut they lived in was made so that it could be put up and dismantled very quickly so that the person could move on to another place. The purpose was to live a life that would not foster a group mentality, but rather to cultivate a holistic attitude where one would feel at one with all lives and the universe. Originally Shakyamuni Buddha did not set out to form a defined group or stay in any one place, because that would promote exclusive thinking, distinguishing between inside and outside, big and small, yours and mine.

So, on this outing we should experience the greatness of nature. If we can truly open up to nature and nature accepts us, then, like the poet Hanshan, we are as spacious as nature itself. When we first arrived at this spot, one little boy was afraid of all the gypsy moths crawling on the ground. They do have a rather strange and scary look about them, being all furry and everything, and they eat the leaves off the trees. But when you think about it, human beings are nothing but big bugs themselves. We are also hairy and eat vegetation, only it’s made into sandwiches. People tend to see themselves as exceptional compared to others and to nature, as if they were the crown of creation — an attitude that derives from our ability to reason and acquire knowledge. But actually, nature itself makes no distinction between intelligent and stupid.

The Amitabha Sutra says that in the Pure Land, the grass and trees are all very pure and majestic, and the breeze and the birds all speak the Buddhadharma. If people can cast off self-centeredness and just see themselves as part of nature, then when the wind blows and the birds sing, they would hear the Buddhadharma. With a pure and equal mind, there is no place that is not the Pure Land.

(From Chan Newsletter No.16, August 1981)

From Chan Newsletter No.25, November 1982

There are some people who practice what we call “peaceful Chan.” Those who practice this way give the impression of being very consistent, practicing all day every day. But such a person might practice for a while and then think, “Oh! It’s about lunchtime.” After lunch they will rest for a while and then resume practicing. Suddenly, “It’s about time to do my laundry.” After the laundry they’re a bit fatigued so they take a break. Soon it’s time for dinner. After dinner, their stomach is a bit full so they have to wait a while before continuing to practice for a little while. Before you know it, it’s time for bed. Some practitioners will continue doing this day after day for years and people will regard them as great practitioners. But, in fact, they may still be the same as when they began to practice. If they seem stable and free of vexations, it is because they do very little, perform no serious work, and avoid involvements or contacts.

I once met a monk who told me, “While I was practicing I attained great liberation.” I then asked, “At that time, is it correct that you never had worries about food or clothing, never had to deal with quarrelsome people?” This person answered, “Of course, I was practicing. People gave offerings of food and clothing and nobody ever came to quarrel with me.” I then asked, “And now?” He told me he now had many vexations because the environment was different. I said to him, “If you attained great liberation then, why aren’t you free from vexations now?” Actually, people like this will never become enlightened, never be a Chan master. They are just wasting their time, wasting their lives, wasting food.

There is yet another type who will work very hard for one or two days as if their life depended on it. But after a couple of days they get very tired, have a headache, their legs and back are sore and their whole body is hurting so that they can’t even sit up. At this time they will say, “Maybe enlightenment isn’t so easy, I’d better take a good rest. After my strength is built up I’ll come back and practice.” After their body has recovered and they feel well rested they will come back, in the same manner. However, there is really no difference between these two types of people. Their practice is useless. Again, people like these are often admired as great practitioners who throw their whole lives into the practice, but actually this kind of practice is of no use.

There is a third type who well remembers the Buddha’s words that practice should be like the tuning of a harp. Just as strings of a harp should not be too loose or too tight, so one’s practice should not be too loose or too tense. Some people take this to mean that one should practice very hard until tired, rest for a while, and then continue practicing. They believe they are practicing proper meditation.

However, this is still useless. It’s like climbing up a rope — you climb very energetically for a while, but then you feel tired and take a rest, allowing yourself to slide back to where you started. You can’t make progress that way. This third type of person needs the guidance of a good master to tell them when to practice energetically, and when to take a rest, without sliding backwards.

For example, a person meditating who hears the sound of bell may think, “Ah! Time is up. I should be tired now so I think I’ll stretch my legs.” At these moments, this person needs a good master to use very strong, even fierce, methods to make that person realize that though capable, their laziness is rendering their practice useless. People tend to easily forgive themselves, but with the strenuous prompting of a master, such a person may develop an “angry determination” in which there is a deep disgust for one’s present state, and a strong determination to practice diligently.

It is very important for the master to recognize whether a practitioner’s mind is ready to generate the great doubt sensation. The master may even tell the disciple that they should rest before continuing. However, once it is clear that the student has aroused the great doubt sensation, the master will be like someone driving a herd of wild animals, and there can be no stopping. Unless the student has a prior medical condition, once the great doubt has been generated, their body can come to no harm from working very hard. This is because at this stage this person is in complete harmony with the universe. The power of the entire universe is available to the individual. So, at this point the master must push the practitioner to keep going and going in the hope that a world-shattering explosion will take place. If not, perhaps a smaller explosion. Of course, for those with the sharpest karmic roots, like the Sixth Patriarch Huineng, none of this is necessary. Such a person will not need the guidance of a master. But for most people having a good master is needed to persevere and attain some good results.

(From Chan Newsletter No.25, November 1982)

From Chan Newsletter No.14, June 1981

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)

From Chan Newsletter No.17, November 1981

When you start practicing meditation, your first goal is to learn your method to the point where body discomforts are not a problem and the mind is fairly well settled. The next phase of practice is use the method to unify body and mind, as well as self and universe. When body and mind are one, you are comfortable and at ease physically and mentally. If you can go further to where self and environment are one, you will feel that nothing in the world is separate from yourself, and the well-being of everybody is of direct concern to you. If you have not progressed this far, just continue your regular meditation but also cultivate wholesome attitudes in your daily life. Realize that your ways of thinking contain great potential, and if you direct your mind correctly and act accordingly, you will achieve your goal quicker than with meditation alone.

We should work on our attitudes toward ourselves and towards others. First, we should give up at least some of our selfishness. If we do this, our vexations would lessen and we would be more able to help others. What is selfishness? It means seeking more of what we desire and trying to avoid what we dislike. Both attitudes are self-centered. In fact, the prevailing modern mentality is to be over-concerned with one’s own benefit. So although the standard of living today may be high, people are spiritually lacking, unable to find security, tranquility, and happiness.

A good solution is the attitude that whatever comes will come in due time, and whatever goes will go in due course. Whatever you have is yours, but there is no reason to be proud of your successes or remorseful about your failures. There is no use in worrying about possible future misfortunes or dreaming about a golden future. Our present situation depends very much upon our family background, our education, and our own efforts. We can easily recognize these factors because they relate to this life, but there are many circumstances that cannot be explained by these factors alone. For instance, two people of the same background and intelligence may not meet with similar fortunes. This is because our karma does not pertain only to this life but has been influenced by countless past lives. Thus, if we meet with misfortune we should view it as repaying a former debt, and we should feel happy that in repaying the debt we now owe less. On the other hand, if we meet with success, this means that we are withdrawing the wealth we have deposited in our past lives, so there is no reason to feel any pride. In fact, the more wealth we take out, the less will remain in the invisible “bank.” So we should take care not to exhaust our deposit, and we must even make an effort to deposit more by engaging in meaningful activities. If we accept the truth of karma, we will not harbor so much resentment and we will be able to take more positive actions in shaping our future.

As to others, we are often overly critical and expect too much. We are upset if they are less than perfect according to our pre-conceived ideas of them. If we were more forgiving and compassionate, we would ask ourselves how we would act in a similar position. As a result we would be less vexed, others will find us easier to befriend, and they may even turn to us for help. There is a saying that fish cannot live in water that is absolutely clear. In other words, we should be satisfied with less than perfection from others.

There is no denying that some people have bad intentions. There are those who will keep their distance when you really need help, and when you are in a good situation they offer you their help, hoping you will reciprocate. But you should not think of them as evil. If people take advantage of you, be thankful for the chance to repay a karmic debt. If you add resentment and revenge to an already difficult situation, the other person will respond in kind, and so it goes in an endless cycle. Rather, move them with compassion, let the incident go, and the next time, offer your help without reservation. He may be touched and become your best friend. There is a common phrase in Buddhism to the effect that “one cannot conceive of all causes and conditions.” What this means is that relationships and situations constantly change, and we cannot predict what may happen even a second from now. If someone deceives you, it is a result of a combination of contributing causes and conditions. He may act differently given a different set of causes and conditions. A proper understanding of this truth will not only dispel aversion or resentment towards something that happens to you, but will allow you to influence others for the good, thus creating a better environment for everyone.

(From Chan Newsletter No.17, November 1981)

From Chan Newsletter No. 4, April 1980

Practitioners come to retreat hoping to get great benefit and go home a new person. This attitude is very good in itself but it can also become an obstacle to practice. Harboring this kind of desire will distract you from your method, and the harder you press the greater the obstacle becomes. Expecting to gain something, as well as being afraid of not practicing well are both incorrect attitudes. But, while having a seeking attitude is counter-productive, we still need vows to keep ourselves from faltering on the path.

When he meditated beneath the Bodhi Tree, Shakyamuni vowed that he would not rise from his seat until he realized supreme enlightenment. By fulfilling this vow he became a fully awakened being, a Buddha. So, you should make a strong vow to put your whole self into your meditation and to be concerned only with the practice. Once a traveler knows the directions to his destination, he should just get on with the actual traveling. Even if you cannot yet see the final destination, you need not be doubtful or anxious. To make a vow is to set the direction and the goal, and the practice is our vehicle. Great vows and diligent practice go together; without both, you will waste time and not receive genuine benefit. At best you may alleviate some karma.

There are many kinds of obstructions in practice and just about everyone has them. On this first day of retreat, some people are already experiencing obstructions. Some are angry with themselves but don’t know how to pacify their minds. Great as their hope to practice well it is hard to do so. Being eager to practice is good but when one is over-eager for results, it becomes an obstruction. This is an example of how an obstruction manifests. In other cases, the obstructions have not yet manifested but lurk below the surface.

There is a saying that before one is liberated from the cycle of birth and death, one is like an ant in a red-hot frying pan. Someone who clearly understands the suffering inherent in the cycle of birth and death, and who works hard for liberation already has the proper anxiousness towards practice. Indeed, only after one has glimpsed their true self-nature are they truly anxious to end transmigration. By contrast, over-anxiety is usually based on an unwholesome attitude, such as being envious of someone who seems to be practicing well.

Then there are those who are practicing very well, or who think they are practicing well. They see lovely visions or hear beautiful music, or their body feels very comfortable, light, and joyous. These are signs that one is practicing well and it is natural to feel elated. But if you cling to them, these experiences become obstacles to progress. When you experience these things, do not attach to them; just acknowledge them and get on with the practice.

(From Chan Newsletter No. 4, April 1980)

From Chan Newsletter No.7, July 1980

Some people like strong tea, some like weak tea and some prefer water. Strong tea stimulates and excites; weak tea quenches thirst, and water replenishes the body’s fluids. Strong tea is like the scorching summer sun and loud thunder at the same time; weak tea is like the autumn moon; water is neither sun, nor moon, nor rain, but it has extreme clarity and brightness. Some people drink strong tea to combat sleepiness or tiredness, most people prefer weak tea, and those who drink only water are few.

Drinking tea in the meditation hall can be a ritual, but it is most important to listen to the master’s words. In fact, a talk like this is called “tea words.” These words are like different strengths of tea, as the methods we teach vary according to a student’s level of experience. Some methods are poisonously strong, some are lighter, and some have no particular meaning.

Strong tea is called “bitter tea.” Those who have just begun to practice are not ready to drink this tea. After they have gained some benefit from practice but are still not clear how to settle their mind, they should drink bitter tea. Like being baked by a hot sun or startled by thunder, this bitter tea gives them no chance to get lazy. They wouldn’t dare fall asleep or indulge in scattered mind. This bitter tea will arouse them to “angry determination” to practice hard. This is why masters of the Linji sect used to beat and shout. Such methods are bitter tea to be given only to people who are already practicing hard. If a master beat or shouted at students who are not diligent, they may think it is very strange or even get scared away.

One type of student who may be given weak tea is beginners who thirst for practice but are not ready for bitter tea. To them I will speak words of comfort and encouragement to make them feel happy to practice. The other type is those who have drunk bitter tea but are in danger of losing their resolve to practice. To them I will give weak tea as an expedient means. It’s like telling someone just setting out on a journey, “There is a place over the horizon that is really idyllic, with trees, birds, and a beautiful landscape. If you just keep on going you will definitely get there.”

One of the sutras tells about a man who yells at his ox, saying, “You are stupid and useless! Why can’t you go faster with such a light load? Don’t you see all the other oxen in front of us speeding along?” Whereupon the ox stopped dead in its tracks and refused to move, thinking, “Since I am useless, why should I move?” So the man, very upset, asked the other men in front, “How do you get your ox to go so fast?” They replied that they deceive their animals, saying sweet words to them, like, “You are so good and energetic. Without you, I would be nowhere. Awhile back you climbed that hill like it was nothing. Now that the road is flat, you should really be able to speed along.” So the oxen are very happy to go fast. Like humans, animals also need to be comforted and encouraged.

Water has “tasteless” taste; it should be given only to those who have practiced extremely well but have not yet entered the door of Chan, that is to say, have not had some realization. They have already drunk bitter and weak tea and are attached to the flavor, meaning they tend to think too much and cannot stop their minds. They also cannot put their method down and may be attached to a goal of getting enlightened. They are burdened by their experience and intellect. To them I will give a flavorless method. For example, Master Zhaozhou of the Tang dynasty used phrases that seemed to have no meaning, such as: “The 10,000 dharmas return to one; where does the one return to?” Or, “When I was in Qingzhou I made a robe weighing seven pounds.” Or, “What did Bodhidharma bring from the West?” Or, “In the garden there are cypress trees.” These are examples of “water” words that can induce a practitioner to give up all attachments, throw everything away, and reach the highest goal of enlightenment. But there are also people who can suddenly put down all their attachments with bitter tea. It works by giving them a shock. One can even attain this by drinking weak tea, but in that case, it can only be a very gradual enlightenment.

Who here has had the taste of water, where there is no sun, no moon and no rain, neither night nor day? Yes, but was it crystal-clear? When it is crystal-clear it has brightness in which all things all exist, but there is no discriminating mind, no taste. So subjectively, in this state, the person does not exist. If a person in this state is out in the burning sun, he wouldn’t consider that he is in the sun, but everything is still very clear. With bitter or weak tea, the mind is still there, but crystal-clear water is like the state of no-mind. Bitter and weak tea can help you towards no-mind, but eventually one needs to drink clear water.

(From Chan Newsletter No.7, July 1980)

From Chan Newsletter No.22, June 1982

Once when I was on solitary retreat in the mountains in Taiwan, I was walking down the steps of my hut when suddenly my mind was filled with doubt. “Who was it that just walked down the steps?” It was me. “Who is the person standing here now?” It is also me. Then, was the “me” who walked downstairs the same as the “me” standing here now? Am I two different people? I became so wrapped up in these questions that I did not eat that day. This is an example of a situation where the doubt sensation arises spontaneously. There is a lot of power to that natural doubt. However, most people on retreat cannot come up with the doubt sensation spontaneously. Therefore, we give them a method such as the question, “Who am I?” to help arouse the doubt.

Of course, if you are not practicing hard at the time, this sort of question would not be very useful. Once on retreat in Taiwan I asked a student, “What is your name?” He replied, “Chen.” Pointing to a name card pasted on the wall, I said, “That’s wrong. Chen is over there!” He said, “What am I doing over there?” At that time he couldn’t figure out who he was. For over twenty years he had identified himself by his name. But now he realized his name had nothing to do with him. So who was he? From that time on, the doubt sensation arose in his mind. It’s like being in a pitch-black room or inside an iron ball. You cannot see anything clearly at all but you know there must be some brightness outside and you really want to know what it is.

Once there was a baby who was born in prison. His father was related to the emperor of the previous dynasty, and when the new dynasty took over, they imprisoned the family members of the old dynasty. So this infant prince was doomed to spend his whole life behind bars and he didn’t know of anything different. He thought that life was just like this and he never suspected there was anything outside. One day an old man got sentenced to life in prison and was thrown in the same jail. He said to the young prince, “Since I was sentenced to life, I am thinking of escaping. Why don’t you come along? We can either try to get out ourselves, or we can wait for someone to save us.” The boy said, “Don’t be crazy. Here we have plenty of food, and clothes to wear. It’s really pretty good in here. You’re so old already, what do you want to out there for?” The old man answered, “You don’t understand, son. To lose your freedom is a painful thing.” “What’s freedom?” “Outside of this prison is freedom.” “Do you mean to say I’m not free now?”

Everyday, this old man constantly thought about getting out. One day, after he finished eating, he broke his bowl and used the chips to start digging a hole. The prince stood there laughing at him. “What are you doing that for? You’re so old, by the time you dig your way out, you’ll be dead. Besides, if the guards find out, they’ll give you a terrible beating. So what’s the point? It’s so comfortable here.” In fact, the boy even told the guards, “This crazy old man is planning to escape.” After that they beat up the old man and locked him up for a few days without food. That disturbed the prince and he felt sorry for him. But as soon as he got out, the old man started digging again. The prince thought, “This man must be obsessed.” He asked him, “What is it out there that tempts you so much?” The old man said, “You just don’t know. Out there is freedom and in here is just a place to punish criminals. I prefer to live outside for one hour than die here in this jail.” When he heard that, the boy was strangely moved. He thought, “Maybe there is something to what the old man says. It must be better out there; otherwise he would not be willing to keep on digging after all the beating and starvation.” So he started helping the old man.

But the boy was only a child after all. After digging for a while, he gave up and threw aside the chip. He said, “This is not fun anymore. What’s so good out there anyway?” So the prince just watched the old man digging and digging. This went on for over a year, with the old man constantly working at it. The young prince would sometimes help him out, and then he would give up and rest. Then the old man would speak some words of encouragement and the boy would be moved and pick up the tile again. Eventually, the old man finally got through the hole, and escaped with the prince. When he got outside, the boy exclaimed, “The world is so big! Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner?” The old man said, “I’ve been telling you all along how wonderful it was out here, but you wouldn’t believe me.” “Yes, but the way you described it is nothing like what I see now!” said the boy.

In terms of practicing Chan, you could say that the old man represents someone who has already had a glimpse of his own Buddha-nature. He knows how good it is on the other side. So he is willing to practice with unceasing effort. The prince is just like ordinary people who either don’t believe in Buddha-nature or don’t believe in it strongly enough. So they are sometimes moved to practice, but lack the power to keep on working hard. Similarly, before you are able to give rise to a strong doubt sensation that will keep you practicing hard, you must first have attained some response from the practice. Otherwise, even if you use a method such as huatou, it would not bring up a doubt. It would only be the same as reciting a mantra over and over again. At most it would bring you to a state of deep concentration, or samadhi. But if you wish to use the huatou to attain enlightenment, you must first have a strong foundation of meditation practice.

(From Chan Newsletter No.22, June 1982)

From Chan Newsletter No.11, April 1981

The greatest problem that the ancient Chan masters had was getting their disciples to have an earnest attitude towards death. Without a deep sensitivity to the problem of death, it is very hard to practice Chan well. It is very difficult for young people or those who live in a very sheltered environment to get a feeling for death. I don’t know if any of you ever think about death, and if you do, whether you feel it isn’t all that serious, that it does not concern you right now. I wonder how sensitive you are to the fact that life is impermanent, and that you are eventually going to die. Probably most young people can’t really bring themselves to be moved by the fact of death.

Among practitioners who are moved by the fact of death, there are two kinds of attitudes. Most common is fear, that is, they don’t know when they are going to die and they don’t want to die. They may want to cling to the good things in life, or maybe leave a legacy they will be admired for in the future. There is a great deal of self-attachment in this attitude. Another type of attitude is held by people who are practicing well and have no fear of death. They are consciously aware that they are going to die, that death may come at any time, and they don’t want to die leaving anything undone. They want to take advantage of all their time to practice hard. Since they still have not attained liberation, they don’t know where they’re going after death, but they know they are in contact with the Buddhadharma, so they want to use the present life to practice as much as they can. Of course, there is self-attachment here too, but this is necessary for practice. If there were no self-attachment you would not even be here, since it was to solve your problems that you began practicing.

The great masters of the past emphasized that, when practicing, one should put aside all fear of loss and death. In the past, when people left the home life, they told themselves that they were handing their body over to the monastery, and their life over to the spirits that protect the Dharma. Whatever the abbey or Dharma protectors instruct them to do, they will do. They are just going to practice, disregarding their body and life. This is a good attitude for those who are not afraid of death, or who have an accepting attitude about it. One can practice well with it. People who are constantly worrying about their body during meditation – I feel a little pain here, a little discomfort there, if I keep on going, maybe something will happen to me – will never be able to practice well. Not only should you not worry about your body dying, but also you should not worry about your spirit dying. If there’s any kind of “spirit” left that could become a Buddha, then it would definitely be just a demon or a ghost. If there is anything left there, whether a false or wandering mind, or a so-called true or correct mind, it has to die, or else it’s just a ghost. So what do you want to do – become a Buddha or a ghost?

Once in China there was a monk who was so adept, he was able to leave his body. One time he left his body sitting there for a week and everyone assumed he had died, so they cremated his body. When this monk came back, he couldn’t find his body. So he hovered in the air, calling out, “Where am I? Where am I?” Everybody in the monastery was frightened because for several days straight he was shouting, “Where am I?” And now, some of you are also using this method, right? Did you find your body?

Anyway, as it happened, after he was shouting for a few days, the abbot decided to put an end to this. He placed a big tub of water right under where the sound was coming from, and the next time they heard the voice crying, “Where am I?” the abbot yelled, “You’re down here!” Upon hearing that, the spirit descended with a splash. Then the abbot called out to him, “You’re already dead! All you did was turn yourself into a pitiful ghost. Did you really get liberated? Don’t you know that neither the five skandhas nor the four elements that compose the body are you? Where are you now?”

Then this monk realized that his physical body was not the same as himself, and the death of the physical body was not an important issue. If he still thought that he was the water, he would have transformed to a water spirit. So if I put this glass of water there right now, and if someone were to ask, “Where am I?” and I were to say, “You are here” [pointing to the water], would any of you get enlightened?

(From Chan Newsletter No.11, April 1981)

From Chan Newsletter No.104 November 1994

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)

From Chan Newsletter No.35, January 1984

To think means to investigate, to look into something, to analyze with reasoning and logic. First we should understand that thinking by itself does not necessarily cause vexations. For example, statues of bodhisattvas and Buddhas and certain patriarchs, especially those in the Tibetan tradition, often have their heads tilted to one side, signifying thinking. But there is a difference between thinking with purpose and thinking without purpose. People ordinarily think with a purpose in mind. When there is a purpose there is a goal, and when there is a goal there is a self that wants to accomplish that goal. Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, engage in thinking but without a specific purpose — one who is not self-centered will have no purpose in mind when they act.

The thinking of a bodhisattva arises out of unified mind, which we call samadhi. To have a sense of self implies that there is a conscious entity, the “self,” separate from the object of one’s thinking. In that state at least two thought-streams exist: the self and what that self is thinking about. With two thought-streams, one’s mind cannot be completely unified and one cannot enter samadhi. A bodhisattva without a self-center can abide in samadhi and still act without mental constructs. Does this kind of thinking still function as regular thought? By all means, but the thinking of a bodhisattva is more open, clearer, and suffused with wisdom.

It is not necessary for Buddhas and bodhisattvas to think. They do think, however, when they speak the Dharma and when they help others. Mahayana Buddhism holds that Buddhahood has triune aspects: dharmakaya (the Dharma or truth body), nirmanakaya (the incarnation body), and the sambhogakaya (the bliss body). Thinking is not really necessary for a Buddha in the dharmakaya aspect, but an incarnated Buddha does engage in thinking. What kind of thinking? An incarnated Buddha who appears before human beings would of course use human thinking. The difference is that incarnated Buddhas and bodhisattvas do not have specific ends associated with their actions, and they do not have a sense of self when performing them. Ordinary sentient beings, despite what they may say or believe, always have a sense of self.

While most of us are not at the stage where we can function without a sense of purpose, it is still beneficial that we understand that it is possible. This understanding is especially important in daily life, when we are prey to a sense of gain and loss, when self and environment come into conflict. At such times it is important to remind ourselves of asamskrita, the unconditioned state in which we can act without self-centered purpose. We will not always be able to do this, but we should still emulate the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. When conflicts arise between self and others, or self and environment, we can reflect that we are caught up in our sense of self and our sense of purpose. If we can move towards asamskrita, then these conflicts may be resolved.

Samskrta, the conditioned state, involves a self. When there is a self, whatever we encounter will be in the realm of the six kinds of sense data, of which the sources are our own bodies and the environment. Since the six kinds of sense data are based on phenomena, can thoughts be separate from phenomena? Even when we think in abstract concepts, we still have to use symbols that are to the mind, also phenomena. That is to say, without reference to phenomena, we cannot think.

If we were to say that we must have phenomena in order to think, and that the spirit realm can only be reached through thought, we will arrive at materialism, the belief that phenomena are real. But the Buddhist scriptures do not lead us towards a materialistic point of view. The Sutra of Complete Enlightenment shows that thinking arises only when our mind interacts with the six kinds of sense data. We can turn this around and say that without the functioning of the mind there would be no such experience of the six kinds of sense data. For example, if you are in a sound, dreamless sleep, what exists in the world? It can be said that nothing exists. By the same token, when the mind is completely dull, as in a coma, nothing exists because the mind is unaware of anything. On the other hand, when the mind is completely clear and most acute, once again, it is unaware of the material world.Thus in these two opposing states — when the mind is extremely clear or extremely dull — there will be no awareness of the material world. The existence of ordinary sense data, ordinary material things, is present only when the mind is in its ordinary state.

This line of reasoning leads to the view that phenomena exist only when the mind is aware of them. When the mind lacks such awareness, phenomena cannot be said to exist. So this is the opposite of materialism. Are we to say that the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment leads us to pure idealism? The mind can function only when it is interacting with phenomena, including purely mental phenomena. If we posit that phenomena exist only when they are experienced by the mind, then neither phenomena nor mind really exists. If phenomena had independent existence they would not have to rely on the mind’s awareness of them, and if the mind had real independent existence, its functioning would not rely on the material world. Thus we can reject both materialism and idealism.

If we know that the mind is an illusion without real substance, to use an illusory mind to seek Buddhahood would result in more illusions, like seeing flowers in the sky. We might go a step further and see the flowers blossom and bear fruit. The fruit that comes from illusory flowers cannot have more substance than the flowers themselves. Therefore it is futile to try to probe the depth of Buddhahood with a self-centered, illusory mind.

Sentient beings may aspire to Buddhahood, but approach it with a self-centered attitude, an impossible task. It is not easy to let go of these attitudes. To get results, a practitioner can summon extraordinary effort for a while, but this is very difficult to persist over a long time. Most people are willing to endure untold suffering to reach a goal. The result is that they may realize that practice is not so easy. Ridding oneself of vexations is not easy, let alone becoming a Buddha. In fact, some people develop more vexations after they begin to practice. At some point they may feel, “I’ll stop for a while; when I am ready I will come back again.” I have met a number of people who put forth a great deal of effort at first, but slacken after a while and ultimately turn from the path.

It is best not to seek anything from practice. The more we seek spiritual attainment the more we live in illusion, and the further we drift from seeing Buddha-nature. Instead, we should maintain a calm and stable attitude and just follow the teachings of the Buddha, not concerning ourselves with progress or getting rid of vexations. Free of such concerns, vexations will lessen of their own accord, and we will make progress while being unaware of making progress. If we are anxious about progress, disappointment is likely, and we may become disillusioned and eventually turn away from practice. When we are free from thinking with purpose and have let go of self-centered mind, then complete enlightenment and Buddhahood are possible.

(From Chan Newsletter No.35, January 1984)

From Chan Newsletter No.41, November 1984

Someone who has practiced for many years and has achieved good results may feel that they have realized pure wisdom, where all attachment to self is terminated and nirvana is entered. Actually, anyone who thinks they are enlightened really is not, since such a person still thinks that there is a self to be enlightened. Enlightenment is neither an object, nor a feeling, nor a realm to be entered. If enlightenment were any of these, it would be limited and thus illusory. So long as enlightenment is seen as an objective, and so long as there is a self to benefit from enlightenment, wisdom will be remote.

If you have just begun to practice, after hearing what I have just said, you may think that you understand. But it is difficult for a beginner to appreciate the joy that results from deep practice. Indeed, suppose that after much practice you feel as if the self has entered nirvana. At this time tremendous bliss would well up in you, and you might exclaim, “Truly, my self has disappeared completely. I have entered nirvana.” Have you really entered nirvana? Since there is still a sense of self to enter nirvana, that ultimate achievement is still unrealized. But so powerful is this experience that it is likely to mislead even a very experienced practitioner. This is an example of the kind of misconception that can result from attachment to self.

Another example would be a practitioner who reaches the stage where self-centeredness ends and the method of practice disappears. He will feel entirely relaxed and free, unified with the universe, yet unconcerned with its relation to him because his self-sense is gone. His state is not one of exultation, but rather of perfect ease; he will not jump with delight and shout that he has entered nirvana. But the self still exists in this case, no matter what the practitioner has experienced. Once he comes down from this peaceful state, he may assert that he understands nirvana, that he has seen the Dharma body of the Buddha, and that he has attained final wisdom. If you, who have not yet attained the meditative skill of this person, attempt to contradict him, he may well overcome you in debate. He may respond as follows: “You have never had my experiences, so you don’t know what you are talking about.” Such a practitioner is generally very attached to his achievement and will be frustrated when you do not believe him. To make matters worse, there may be another person close by who is willing to affirm what this practitioner claims, perhaps because this other person feels that his own achievements accord perfectly with the sutras. This bystander may say that, because he himself has known the experiences described by the other practitioner, he is in a position to affirm their validity. This will make the first practitioner very happy and see the other as a true Dharma friend.

What kind of liberation does this practitioner possess, who responds to praise with delight and to doubt with irritation? It would seem that his nirvana is faulty. Perhaps our practitioner might respond to this conclusion as follows: “I may respond to praise and criticism in different ways, but I do not do so to please myself. Since I am quite free from the self, I really do not care at all. But in order to uphold the dignity of the Buddhadharma, I censure those who conflict with the Dharma and praise those who are in accord with it.” What can we say to this? It would be impossible to judge such a person’s achievement. What is important is the nature of his experience. If as a result of this experience he feels he has attained deep wisdom, then he has not entered nirvana. Nirvana is entered only when both nirvana and samsara disappear and become like a dream; nirvana is entered only if there is no more feeling of happiness and sorrow, and if the mind is quite stable and tranquil.

It is strange to speak of enlightenment as a dream, but if samsara and enlightenment are both illusory, then the practitioner is striving to leave one dream only to enter another. Actually, enlightenment itself is not a dream, but the idea of enlightenment as well as its attainment is a dream. Thus, sentient beings in samsara live in a dream, with a view of enlightenment as an object of grasping. If they actually reach enlightenment, it will no longer be seen as a dream. Indeed, at that time, enlightenment will cease to exist. When genuine enlightenment is entered, being empty, it disappears.

A diligent practitioner is like someone trying to climb a glass mountain. The mountain is very steep and slippery. The mountaineer is barefooted and to make matters worse, the mountain is covered with oil. Every time he makes an effort to climb, he slips. With persistence, however, he tries again and again to make progress up the mountain until, utterly exhausted, he collapses into a deep sleep. When he awakens, the mountain has disappeared. He then realizes that all his effort was but a dream, and that there is no need to climb; there is no progress to make. In the dream, however, the mountain did exist, and if he had not attempted the impossible, he would not have been able to wake from his dream. We practice Buddhadharma in order to leave samsara and achieve nirvana. If in the course of practice you think you have left one realm and entered the other, you are still only dreaming.

So far we have treated those who feel they have achieved enlightenment in relation to an existing self. In our third example, we will examine the equally false, reverse perspective. In this case, the practitioner asserts that there is no nirvana and no self to enter nirvana. Therefore he is indifferent to praise and blame, to worldly affairs, and even to his own practice. This attitude is quite erroneous and is perhaps more dangerous for the practitioner than either of the two previous examples. In those previous examples, the practitioner may at least attain the heavenly states of dhyana, but this third practitioner is tempted to give up practicing. Were he to persevere in practice, he might be able to enter the formless heavens. But if he were to cease practicing because all is illusion, because of this ignorance, neither the human nor heavenly realms would be open to him, and he could be reborn in the animal realm.

These examples of incorrect views of enlightenment are not unusual. It is easy for even diligent practitioners to make these mistakes. Thus, you can understand the great importance of having a master who can guide his students away from these pitfalls. Without such a guide, though convinced he is practicing Buddhadharma, the practitioner could be traveling outer paths.

(From Chan Newsletter No.41, November 1984)

From Chan Newsletter No.90, January 1992

From the moment we are born the threat of illness hovers over us. The person who has not suffered illness has yet to be born, and only after death does illness cease. But the lives of sentient beings are also marked by mental affliction. Indeed, a healthy person with a sick mind may suffer more than someone with a sick body and a healthy mind. 2,500 years ago, the Buddha realized it was important to help people alleviate mental suffering. So, the Dharma he gave us is not an anesthetic for physical pain but a path to alleviate mental suffering. When all our mental problems are cured, that is called liberation.

Western religions talk about Genesis as a time when everything began, but Buddhism sees time as without beginning or end, and sentient beings have known suffering since time without beginning. Buddhism further teaches that our life experiences stem from previous causes. In turn, our present acts become the causes for future effects. This is karma. Vexations arise from our environment, our relationships, and from our own inner turmoil. Relationships in particular cause a great deal of suffering: people point to their enemies as the source of misery, but more often the “culprit” is a family member or an acquaintance. However, we are vexed most by the enemy within, our own mind. Our thoughts, feelings, attitudes and perceptions change constantly. We can move from arrogance to regret, from joy to sorrow, from hate to love, in a matter of seconds. As time passes, our view changes, so that we look at something old in an entirely new way. When in turmoil, we feel powerless to make decisions. We worry about gain or loss, right or wrong. So much indecision throws us into a tumult.

Though everyone suffers in this way, many insist that they have no problems. I once asked someone why he had so many vexations. “It’s not me,” he cried, “it is other rotten people who are making me so miserable.”

Vexation can come in the form of greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, or doubt. Whenever you are distressed, look into the nature of your vexation. As soon as you identify your vexation, its intensity will diminish. When you are distressed by greed, for instance, collect yourself by reflecting, “I’m giving in to desire again!” If you can be objective and non-judgmental about yourself, the greed will diminish. Similarly, when you are aware of your own arrogance, your suffering will diminish. When you are foolish, see that for what it is. Simply accepting your weaknesses will lighten your vexation and suffering. When you have doubts about getting something done, say to yourself: “This is the right thing to do and I can do it.” I have yet to meet someone who never has any doubts.

Buddhism describes five general causes of mental vexation:

  • Pursuing objectives without considering your strengths and weaknesses: Perhaps you are not aware of the resources you possess and so are never satisfied with your efforts. Or, in a situation beyond your control, you torment yourself by resisting the inevitable. Many people, especially the young, believe they can accomplish anything, but under adversity, rather than understand their situation, they feel personally wronged.
  • Having an insatiable desire to expand and conquer. People who suffer from this disturbance need to magnify their abilities, successes, or possessions; they want to extend their influence beyond all limits. Some strive for fame; others want to dominate those who oppose them. Such power struggles can occur between individuals, families, and nations. At whatever level, it is a mental disturbance.
  • Arrogance over achieving a particular objective or station. Pride and self-esteem can lead to callous disregard for others. An arrogant person believes they have the right to hurt others according to their whim.
  • Despair over failing to achieve a goal. When you are discouraged, lose self-confidence, and blame others for your failures, you give rise to despair.
  • Insecurity due to doubt. There is a deep sense of insecurity. Confidence quickly evaporates.

These five types of disturbances in turn can generate a myriad of other mental problems. People often go into denial about their afflictions. “I don’t have any vexations.” A second approach is to try to heal oneself with endless reviews of one’s faults, and what one believes to be remedies. Both approaches tend to make matters worse. And then, there are those who seek professional help. From the Buddhist perspective, analytic therapies can discover only the superficial part of the problem, so the patient never sees the complete picture of their illness. After extensive counseling problems can still resurface and patients can languish for years in therapy. Unlike analytic therapy, Buddhism does not address the specific causes of mental distress, but deals directly with the recognition and alleviation of mental suffering. The Buddhist approach is to change our understanding of the very nature of our existence and to engage a method of practice.

Changing our understanding involves believing in karma, understanding the law of cause and conditions, and cultivating compassion.

  • The law of karma, or cause and effect: Buddhists believe that there was a life before this life, and one before that, and so on through innumerable past lives. Much of what we experience now may seem unfair, but it is simply a consequence of actions we have performed in the past. Our willingness to accept what befalls us, good or bad, depends on our willingness to accept our karma. This concept extends beyond religious belief into a well-known fact of everyday life: our actions have consequences.
  • The law of causes and conditions: All phenomena arise and pass away because of the coming together of different conditions. The cause of a flower is a seed, but soil, water, and sun must be present for the plant to come into existence. Time, uprooting, or lack of water or sun will cause the plant to wither and die. Thus, when we succeed at something there is no need to be proud or arrogant when we realize that our success was due to the direct and indirect help of many people. And since we know that what comes into being will pass, there is no need for despair when we encounter adversity. As the proverb says, “It is always darkest before the dawn.”
  • Compassion. People usually wish others to be compassionate towards them, but seldom remember that they should also be compassionate. There are those who, when they make a mistake, demand that they be forgiven. “Don’t measure me against the standards of a saint!” But if someone else errs, they are quick to say, “Why can’t you do it right the first time?” You can develop and nurture a spirit of compassion by actively observing the following ideas:
    Understand your own conflicts and cultivate inner harmony.
    Feel sympathy for others people’s shortcomings.
    Forgive other people’s mistakes.
    Concern yourself with other people’s suffering.
Understanding one’s own inner conflicts is especially important; to be at peace with oneself requires a calm mind. If you are aware that your actions have consequences, and that trying situations arise out of conditions created by your own karma, you will experience compassion, sympathy, forgiveness, and caring towards others.

Armed with an understanding of karma and causes and conditions, one should engage in the practices of mindfulness and meditation.

  • Mindfulness can be achieved by reciting the Buddha’s name. First, reciting the Buddha’s name in order to be reborn in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha gives you hope for the future and, consequently, makes it easier for you to let go of the present. Second, reciting the Buddha’s name can alleviate your mental problems. When you find yourself psychologically off-balance, you can remove anger, doubt, or other mental disturbances by concentrating on the Buddha’s name. I often tell people, “When you feel like yelling at someone, recite Amitabha’s name.” Send your anger to Amitabha. Let it be his problem!
  • Sitting meditation can collect a scattered mind and stabilize affliction. There are many methods of meditation and many levels of attainment; at this point, let me simply give you an idea of the more profound stages you might experience from meditation, namely, the stages of samadhi and no-mind. Samadhi is when you reach the point where no wandering thoughts exist in your mind. In samadhi, there is neither a person nor a problem that can vex you. From samadhi, you can develop the wisdom of no-mind. This is Chan enlightenment. To reach enlightenment is to see into your self-nature and be free of mental affliction and illness. When you are always in this state and do not regress, you have realized “great enlightenment.” Short of that is “small enlightenment,” where old vexations may arise but you will at least be able to deal with them. Finally, even without enlightenment, meditating is an important step towards your transforming your vexations into liberation.

(From Chan Newsletter No.90, January 1992)

From Chan Newsletter No.19, February 1982

When Chan Master Gaofeng Yuanmiao (1238-1295) met Chan Master Xueyan Zuqin (1216-1287), the latter asked him: “You’ve been practicing for so long. At this point, do you have mastery of yourself when you are awake?” That is to say, when you are awake, can you not think about things you should not, and can you not do what you should not? Gaofeng immediately replied: “Yes.” This is already very good. Only someone who has practiced for along time would be able to say yes. Xueyan questioned him again: “At night in your dreams, do you have mastery of yourself?” And again Gaofeng answered, “Yes.” Xueyan then asked a third question: “When you are sleeping and not dreaming, where is the master then?”

Now Gaofeng had already been working on wu for quite a long time, but this question completely stumped him. [The practice of asking a question like, “What is wu (emptiness)?” is called huatou, and is related to the practice of gong’an (Jap., koan).] He repeated the question to himself but could not give an answer. So Xueyan told Gaofeng: “From now on, do not study Buddhadharma, do not read sutras or commentaries; just practice. And how does one practice? When you are hungry, eat; when you are sleepy, go to sleep. After sleeping, get up and practice.”

From that time onward, when Gaofeng was hungry, he ate, when he felt tired, he slept, and just tried practice hard. And what was his practice? He asked the question, “Where is my master?” Even during his sleep, he continued, “Where is my master?”

From that time onward, when Gaofeng was hungry, he ate, when he felt tired, he slept, and just tried to practice hard. And what was his practice? He asked the question, “Where is my master?” Even during his sleep, he continued, “Where is my master?”

There are various stages involved here. The first one is whether we can be our own master when we are awake. What we do not want to think, we will not think; what we do not want to do, we will not do. How many of you can be your own master in this sense? If not, why not? By answering positively to the first question, Gaofeng showed that he was on a higher level of attainment than an ordinary person.

To be one’s own master in dreams is an even higher attainment. It means that you can control your own behavior in your dreams, and moreover, you can control the type and content of the dreams. You will not have random or meaningless dreams, and while dreaming, you have a very clear mind. This kind of person is actually still practicing while dreaming. He or she always maintains right mindfulness or virtuous thoughts, that is, he will not do or think anything in the dream that is not considered permissible in daily life. To be one’s own master in your dreams means that you continue the same practice while dreaming that you do during the day. If you prostrate to the Buddha during the day, then you will continue prostrating in the dream. If you recite Buddha’s name, then even in dreams you still recited Buddha’s name. If you are delivering sentient beings, then you also deliver sentient beings in your dreams. If you are working on a huatou then even in dreams the huatou will not leave you.

Not to have dreams at all is on a higher level still, and difficult to accomplish. It is already very good if you can reach the level where you no longer have any confusing or evil dreams, but it is very hard for the ordinary person to not dream at all. Sages have dreamless sleep; they are just in a state of rest. Master Gaofeng had already reached the level where, at least most of the time, he was able to sleep without dreaming. But does that mean that all of his problems had been resolved? Actually, being able to sleep without dreaming only indicates that he had very good samadhi power. It does not necessarily mean he was enlightened.

Therefore the question that Xueyan put to him was very appropriate, and it became a huatou for Gaofeng. He just kept on asking himself, “[When I’m asleep and not dreaming,] where is my master?” Because asking this question aroused a great doubt in his mind, Gaofeng kept asking this question for five years. However, remember that even before he started on this huatou, he had already reached the state where he was his own master when awake as well when he was dreaming. So his practice involved a very long process up to this point.

One evening Gaofeng woke up from sleep and reached for his pillow. At that point, the pillow fell to the floor with a thud. At the sound, Gaofeng shouted, “Aha! Now I have found you!” The cloud of doubt was dispelled; he emerged from the “barrel of black pitch” and saw the light. This is an example of one practitioner’s path to enlightenment.

(From Chan Newsletter No.19, February 1982)

From Chan Newsletter No.37, June 1984

All sentient beings are originally Buddhas. However, to sentient beings this seems completely contradictory: the Buddhas are perfectly wise whereas we are profoundly ignorant. How did this contradiction arise? The Sutra of Complete Enlightenment tells us that Buddha-nature and the ignorance of sentient beings are actually not different. Both have existed from time without beginning: ignorance is only a different form of Buddha-nature. This is like ice and water — the same substance can be ice or water depending on its temperature. We can extend this analogy: the ice at the North Pole is frozen just as sentient beings have always been ignorant. But due to climatic variations, some ice at the North Pole may occasionally melt, and similarly due to causes and conditions among sentient beings, some of them do realize their Buddha-nature.

So ignorance and Buddhahood, just like ice and water, are essentially the same although they may appear different according to conditions. The difference that we perceive between Buddhas and sentient beings is but an illusion. This raises an interesting question: Buddhism teaches that sentient beings can become Buddhas, but if Buddhas and sentient beings are one by nature, what is to prevent a Buddha from becoming a sentient being?

According to Chan, nirvana and samsara (the cycle birth and death) both exist and do not exist. They exist from the perspective of sentient beings because sentient beings are attached to self and cling to form and appearance. However, from the perspective of a Buddha, there is no difference between samsara and nirvana because a Buddha is not attached to form and appearance. But a Buddha can manifest equally in samsara or nirvana depending on the needs of sentient beings. So, just as ice can melt into water, there is nothing to prevent a Buddha from taking the form of a sentient being. This is what happened when the Buddha took the form of an Indian prince. But a sentient being who is a manifestation of a Buddha is very different from one who has never been a Buddha. The former have become sentient beings because of their wisdom, while the latter remain sentient beings because of their impure karma.

This impure karma is the result of attachment to the four kinds of phenomena that are mentioned in the Diamond Sutra: self, other people, all sentient beings, and life as a continuum. Each form of attachment encompasses a wider circle of beings. As illustration of the four kinds of phenomena, let us say that two young people are deeply in love. It is unlikely that today they will feel love for each other and tomorrow they will not. More commonly, people in love want to remain in love forever. They may have the attitude, "It does not matter even if we go to hell so long as we stay in love." Here we can perceive three of the four kinds of phenomena: the self who falls in love, the [other] person who is beloved, and the desired continuity of love throughout time, or life. What about sentient beings? A child may be born and the parents will aspire for it to have a career, get married, and have a family. Moreover, the child will probably aspire similarly, and so on through endless generations. This instinct to proliferate gives rise to sentient beings. So, all four forms of attachment can be generated in this example of two people in love.

I once asked someone if he wanted to become a monk. He said, "It is not that I don't want to become a monk, but my father would like to have grandchildren." So I said, "Well, why don't you first have a son, and then become a monk? After you have a son, you will have fulfilled your obligation." He responded, "Sure, that's what I'll do." But then I assured him that he would never leave home after he had a son. His own son would want his own children, so there will continue to be attachment. This is life for all sentient beings and it is without end.

The four kinds of attachment are but mirages arising and perishing through causes and conditions. Holding on to the phenomena as if they were real creates attachment to self. But the ego by itself is hard to establish; it is through others that we develop attachments and these attachments reinforce the sense of self. Attachments can be directed mainly towards outer objects, relationships or events, or they can be mainly self-centered. There is a mayor of a certain city who is over fifty years old and has never been married. With no family do you think that he has fewer attachments? Not at all. It is as if the city totally belongs to him. He always says, "I want my city to be like this, I want it to be like that." This is the first kind of attachment, that of the ego.

There was once a general who understood the second kind of attachment — that which is directed to others. He would assign important jobs only to men with wife and children. Having found the appropriate man for a job, he would have that man’s family placed in a very secure environment both to prevent anxiety and ensure loyalty. We have seen that our ignorance continues as a result of the four attachments, but what is it that indefinitely sustains ignorance? I will give two answers. When the self is erroneously taken as eternal, attachment arises not only for the self of the present but also the self of future. So as someone makes preparations for the future, he creates karma relating to the future. Having by the end of his life accumulated much future karma, he must be reborn to experience the retribution for this karma. Since they constantly prepare for the future, sentient beings must time after time suffer rebirth. Always thus attached, they remain impure indefinitely.

My second answer pertains to practitioners who seek to reach Buddhahood, nirvana, or any kind of heavenly world, but travel an outer path that is not in accord with Buddhadharma. They feel aversion to the world and a corresponding desire for escape. Practitioners on outer paths who seek residence in heavenly worlds can certainly attain their desire through accumulation of merit. But their stay in these worlds is limited, for departure is unavoidable once their merit is exhausted, and they must return to samsara. Similarly, those Buddhists who seek Buddhahood as an escape from the world may gain entrance into the Pure Land. Such practitioners may think they have achieved nirvana, but as their merit subsides they are compelled to leave their heavenly abode and be reborn in the desire realm. There, these two kinds of practitioners will again work to accumulate merit to gain respite in the heavens. They never lose their attachment and remain impure indefinitely.

It is attachment that causes impure karma, and it is by attachment that it is sustained. If sentient beings are to become Buddhas, then there can be no attachment, no seeking, and no goal.

(From Chan Newsletter No.37, June 1984)