The Chan (Zen) School
Once when Shakyamuni Buddha was about to speak the Dharma, the Great Brahma Heavan King presented him with a golden lotus. The Buddha held up the flower before the assembly without saying anything. At that time, the hundreds of thousands of gods and people who were present were silent, unaware of its significance. Only Mahakashyapa responded by smiling.
Then the Buddha said,
“I have the Treasury of the Proper Dharma Eye, the wondrous mind of Nirvana, the Reality beyond appearances, a subtle and wondrous Dharma-door, which is not based on the written or spoken word. It is a special transmission outside the teachings. I entrust this to Mahakashyapa.”
This event 2500 years ago was the beginning of the Chan (Zen) School. The Japanese word “Zen” comes from the word “Chan” in Chinese. The word Chan itself is a transliterated and abbreviated version of the Sanskrit word “Dhyana”. Originally the Chinese took the word Dhyana and transliterated it as Chan Na. Later they shortened it to just Chan.
Chan is distinguished by four characteristics:
1. It is not established by words,
2. It is a special transmission outside the teachings,
3. It directly points to the human mind,
4. Through it, one sees one’s own nature and becomes a Buddha.
Chan is transmitted directly from one mind to another mind. Its teaching simply directs the individual to see one’s own inherent, true mind, referred to as “seeing the nature and returning to the source.” That is, the enlightened teacher, profoundly aware of the mind of his student, certifies that the student’s mind is indeed truly “awakened”. This is a direct certification, mind to mind, that can only be done by a Sage.
Chan is also known as the “unfixed teaching”, because both the means and the ends of Chan focus on non-attachment and subduing the ordinary “mad” mind that habitually tries to fix and shape reality to fit its own whims and preconceptions. A genuine and skilled Chan master employs a creative variety of techniques, tests, and teachings to help the student “stop the mad mind”. These techniques can range from riddles, humor, and gentle scoldings to unorthodox strategies like total silence, expulsion from the monastery, or a slap in the face. The techniques themselves hold no significance or special power, rather their effectiveness lies in being uniquely suited to a particular individual at a particular time. The success of the unfixed teaching depends completely on the teacher’s wisdom to spot what is appropriate to transform the student and the timing of delivery. These methods can take many different forms, but the results are identical: healthy, spiritual growth.
One bestows the teachings
for the sake of the individual.
One prescribes the medicine
according to the illness.
All of the ancient Chan Patriarchs from Mahakashyapa up through the Tang Dynasty, some 1200 years later when the Chan School branched out into five separate lineages, were outstanding members of the Bhikshu Sangha. Stern and pure in their upholding of the moral discipline, they taught by their unassailable life-style, actual accomplishment, and genuine humility. They were exemplars of lofty virtue and profound practice.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), the Great Master Han Shan wrote the following essay that shows even during his time people with genuine realization in Chan were few. They are undoubtedly more rare in the present time.
Good Teachers are Hard to Find
In the past, when the Chan movement flourished, clear-eyed good and wise teachers abounded. The monks who investigated were many; so too the instances of genuine realization.
Now, however, it isn’t Chan which is lacking, but rather, that good teachers are hard to find. Now the home of Chan has become lonely and desolate. It has been that way for a long time already. Sure, there are those who impulsively resolve to investigate Chan. And they may even be fortunate enough to meet good and wise teachers who employ provisional techniques to help them make progress according to their propensities, and certify them according to their potential. Nonetheless, these students have shallow faculties, and easily jump to the conclusion that they already have some attainment. Moreover, they do not believe in the Sagely Teachings of the Thus Come One, do not seek the true and proper path, and insist on muddling along in their own confusion. Consequently they settle for cheap imitation “seals of approval”. Not only do such people delude themselves, they misguide others as well. Isn’t this something to be apprehensive about?
Moreover, prime ministers and others among the laity, who had some level of attainment as recorded in the Annals of the Transmission of the Light (1004-1107 AD) were just a handful. Within the wearisome dust of this present age, there are those who can’t even uphold the major precepts, and whose false thinking is wild and turbid. And yet, relying on their worldly intelligence, they read a few of the records of the virtuous ones of old and start believing that they themselves have unsurpassed superior faculties. Thereupon they become extremely conceited and, thinking themselves already enlightened, engage monks in a Chan battle of wits. This is a sickness of the times; it is a case of one blind person leading a hoard of blind people.
Today this old monk has pointed out some essential aspects of working hard at cultivation as was practiced by the Buddha and the Patriarchs. Those of you who are clear-headed and intelligent should rectify yourselves according to these standards.
The purpose of including this essay in this introduction is to emphasize that genuine attainment in Chan requires hard work and long effort under a good teacher. Moreover, genuine attainment is difficult to recognize as it manifests in a self-effacing, low profile. Someone with true achievement does not wish to advertise or call attention to himself/herself. A teacher’s only concern is to carry on the teachings by training students sincerely motivated to walk the Way.
Patience, No Greed, and Perseverance:
Three Requisites for Sitting in Meditation
---by Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
What must you be patient with? You must learn to bear the pain in your back and the pain in your legs. When you first begin to sit in Chan meditation, you will experience pain in your back and legs because you are unaccustomed to sitting that way. In the beginning this pain may be hard to bear, so you have to be patient.
Those who investigate Chan should not hope for enlightenment. If you think about how you want to become enlightened, then even if you were meant to get enlightened, that single thought will obstruct your enlightenment and prevent it from happening.
Furthermore, you should not, because of greed, seek for quick results in your practice. It is not that you can sit today and get enlightened tomorrow. So many of today’s young people are turned upside-down, and although they want to investigate Chan and study the Buddhadharma, they take drugs which they say is a means of becoming enlightened fast. This is a grave mistake. Not only will such people not get enlightened, the more they study in this way, the more confused they become.
Therefore, I stress to you; don’t try to get a bargain. Don’t try to do it fast. Don’t think that without putting out any effort you can cash in on welfare. There is nothing of value obtained without working for it.
You must be constant in your practice of Chan. The best way to sit is in full-lotus. Full-lotus simply requires placing your left ankle on your right thigh, and then lifting your right ankle onto your left thigh. This posture can quiet your mind. It is your foundation in sitting in Chan. You should train yourself to sit that way. Some of you protest,
“My legs are stiff and I can’t sit that way.”
Well, then try sitting in “half” lotus, which is when your left ankle is on your right thigh.
“But I can’t even do that!” some may say.
Well, then you’ll just have to sit in a cross-legged position, in whatever way is possible for you. But you should be working to get into half-lotus and eventually into full-lotus. Full-lotus is the foundation for sitting in meditation. Since it is fundamental, work to master it. If you try to build a house on bare ground, the first big rain that comes along will wash it away. The first big wind that blows will dismantle it. The same is true for meditation without a foundation.
Once your legs are in full-lotus, hold your body erect. Sit up straight, head looking straight ahead, and do not lean forward or backward; do not incline to the left or right. Keep your spine absolutely straight. Curl your tongue back against the roof of your mouth. Then if you salivate you can swallow the saliva. So, people who cultivate Chan should also not smoke cigarettes or take drugs because they turn your saliva bitter.
Your eyes are neither completely open nor closed. If you leave your eyes open while meditating, it is very easy to have false thinking about what you see. If you completely close your eyes while sitting, it is very easy to fall asleep. So keeping your eyes partially open is a good way to counteract both problems.
As to your mind – don’t think of anything. Don’t entertain any false thoughts. Don’t think about what state you are experiencing or hope to experience, and don’t think about how you want to get enlightened. The affairs of this world are not that simple. A thief who steals other’s money ends up with wealth that is not his own. If you work and earn money then the wealth you accumulate is your own. The same principle applies to Chan. Don’t be greedy for quick results, hoping to become enlightened fast. Don’t be greedy to get a bargain. If in your cultivation you are greedy for small benefits, then you will never get the big ones.
Meditation, like all cultivation, must be practiced daily without interruption.
“But when will I be enlightened?” you ask.
It all depends on how hard you work. If you investigate all day from morning to night, while walking, standing, sitting and lying down, your skill will mature and you will certainly become enlightened. For example, you cannot see the trees grow, but every day they become taller. Meditation is like the wild grass growing in the spring: you cannot see it grow, but daily it becomes more profuse.
Of course, everyone wants to become enlightened quickly, but if you don’t do the work, how can you? When you went to school, you passed through grades from elementary school to high school to the University and then perhaps went on to get a Master’s or a Doctorate. It is much harder to become a Buddha.
A Verse from the Song of Enlightenment
by the Great Master Yung Chia (7 th Century),
with an explanation by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
Dharma wealth is lost; merit and virtue destroyed,
Due to nothing else than the conscious mind.
Through the door of Chan the mind comes to rest,
And one suddenly enters the powerful, unborn
knowledge and vision.
Explanation: Why is it that cultivators of the spiritual path are not successful? Why don’t they get a response from their sitting or other methods they happen to cultivate? Why is it that although we do meritorious deeds we lose our merit and virtue? It happens for no other reason than this: our conscious mind acts up. Our “mind” engages in false thinking; our “intellect” is busy calculating; and our “consciousness” is busy discriminating. Because our thoughts have not become focused and concentrated, we cannot “quiet our thoughts”.
Sitting in Chan is called “the quieting of thoughts”. It means putting all errant thoughts to a complete rest. However, it is not easy for us to stop our automatic thinking system. The invisible wind of karma stirs up the sea of consciousness – huge billows and waves surge up, one wave after another without cease. Do our false thoughts have a physical appearance? No. You may be aware they are there, but upon further scrutiny, you discover that they have no substance. Out false thoughts fly everywhere, from one place to the next, like ocean waves crashing on the shore. Sometimes they resemble huge breakers; other times they are like small ripples. At ordinary times we are unaware of these false thought – waves because we live right in the midst of them and therefore do not recognize them as false thoughts. However, when we sit quietly, even for a short moment, we become aware of how these uncountable numbers of thoughts surge up in our minds like countless waves on the ocean.
Therefore, The Song of Enlightenment says, Dharma wealth is lost, merit and virtue destroyed, due to nothing other than the conscious mind. When our thoughts are not focused, and we indulge in casual discrimination, then our eighth consciousness is torn by many thoughts of right and wrong, which rise and sink like waves. Because the mind, intellect, and consciousness are so busily involved in discursive thinking and speculation, we have an uncountable number of false thoughts. As a result, our Dharma wealth and merit and virtue are completely lost.
Through the door of Chan the mind comes to rest. The door of Chan refers to the Dharma-door, the method, of investigating Chan, in which one does not pursue the discriminations of the intellect, but instead brings all thoughts to a single focus, thereby quieting the mind. Then the mind reaches a state of unadulterated purity. For this reason, in the Chan School we investigate a meditation topic, such as “What was my original face before my parents gave birth to me?” Actually, the meditation topic is also a false thought. That being so, why do we still want to use it? Because the meditation topic is a “mantra” to keep the monkey (the mind) in check. If we did not have a method to keep the monkey in check, then this monkey would scamper all about with wild abandon, jumping up and down. We might investigate “Who is mindful of the Buddha?” and try to find out “who is reciting Amitabha”.
Someone might answer, “It’s me who is reciting!”
Well, you say you are reciting, but have you ever seen this person who is reciting? Do you recognize who you truly are? Your present body is a false union of the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air. When those four elements disperse, where have you gone to?
For this reason, we look into “Who is mindful of the Buddha?” We bore into our topic, as if using a drill. The tougher the resistance, the more steadfastly we have to bore through. We investigate, boring deeper and deeper into this question until:
The mountains crumble and the waters dry up
And it is uncertain whether there is a road ahead at all.
Then right in the shadow of the willows and bright flowers
appears another village.
To put it in a nutshell: Chan is not manipulated or controlled by the discriminating consciousness.
And suddenly one enters the powerful, unborn knowledge and vision. Before you have understood, then even when you are sitting in Chan you are constantly engaged in false thinking, and that way, you will never become enlightened. The requirement for enlightenment is concentration. If all the false thoughts in your head can cease, then your true wisdom will be revealed. Becoming enlightened means to understand; to no longer be deluded.
Those of you who sit in Chan, do not be afraid of the pain in your legs or back. Have a vajra-like resolve. Use the three qualities of firmness, sincerity, and perseverance. Be resolute, unchanging, and constant in your effort. The virtuous monks of ancient times would practice sitting for several decades. This work is not simple. It is not like you can “have peonies today and trade them for lotuses tomorrow”. You cannot be enlightened in only one day or meditation. You must develop patience and always attend classes on Chan.
And in what way should you practice meditation? Look at the way a girl pursues her boyfriend or a boy pursues his girlfriend. If you can use the same kind of fervor and dedication in every passing thought during the investigation of your meditation topic, then you will obtain success without fail.
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