The Chan Handbook


5. The States of Chan

The States of the Four Dhyanas

The process of investigating Chan is similar to studying. You go from primary school to secondary school, to college and then to a research institute. After passing these four stages, you can then obtain a doctorate. The Dharma-door of Chan investigation is also like that. It is divided into four steps, that is, the four states of Chan. These are briefly described below:

1. The First Dhyana. “The Stage of Happiness That Leaves Beings Behind.” This means that we depart from our relationship with all beings and obtain another type of happiness. This happiness is different from that of ordinary beings. It emanates from within the skill of our self-nature. When we reach the state of the First Dhyana, our breathing stops. The external breathing stops, while the internal breathing comes alive. This phenomenon is like what happens during winter hibernation. It defies description. At that time, our mind is as clear as water and as bright as a mirror. It illuminates the fundamental substance of our self-nature, even as we are aware that we are sitting in meditation.

2. The Second Dhyana. “The Stage of the Happiness that comes with Samadhi.” In samadhi, we experience happiness beyond compare. This has come to be known as,

The joy of Chan being as food,
The bliss of Dharma filling us up.

When we experience such happiness, we will not feel hungry. That is why people can go without food or drink for many days and still be all right. But we cannot be attached to this state. If we become attached, all our efforts will be wasted. It is even possible to enter a demonic state because of attachment. We must be very cautious. At the stage of the Second Dhyana, not only does our breathing stop, but our pulse stops as well. When we leave this state of concentration, our pulse returns to normal.

3. The Third Dhyana. “The Stage of the Exquisite Bliss that Comes with Transcending Happiness.” Here, we leave the happiness of the Second Dhyana and reach a level of exquisite and subtle bliss. We will feel that everything is the Buddhadharma and that all things are blissful. In this stage of the Third Dhyana, when we enter the state of concentration, not only do our breathing and pulse stop, but our thoughts also stop. At that time, we have no thought of good or bad and no thought of right or wrong. In short, we have no more idle thoughts at all. However, we must not think that we are very special, for this is just part of a process. We are still a long way from ending birth and death.

4. The Fourth Dhyana. “The Stage of the Purity of Dispensing with Thought Entirely.” At this stage, even the thought of happiness is gone, as we have already discarded it. We have reached the pure state of nothing whatsoever, in which things are neither conditioned nor unconditioned. The Fourth Dhyana is a stage that we who investigate Chan must experience. There is nothing special about this. We should not make the mistake of assuming that we have achieved the fruition of the Way. If we think like that, then we are making the same mistake as the unlearned bhiksu and will fall into the hells.

The state of the Fourth Dhyana is still at the stage of a common mortal. If we make vigorous progress, we will certify to states that enable us to enter the Five Heavens of No Return. Only then will we have actually reached the level of a certified sage. However, even at that stage, we will have still not ended birth and death. We have to transcend the Triple Realm in order to end the cycle of birth and death. You have to be clear on this point and not be confused.

An Arhat of the First Fruition is free of idle thoughts, not only when in samadhi, but also when walking, standing, sitting, and reclining. At the First Fruition, they have ended attachments left, but they must still pass through seven more births and deaths.

Do not assume that the First Fruition brings one to Nirvana. Those sages have merely cut through eighty-eight levels of delusions of views in the triple realm. The minds of Arhats of the First Fruition are not swayed, no matter what sight meets their eyes. They do not indulge in superfluous thoughts when facing situations. They have only the thought of the Way as they cultivate Chan single-mindedly. Even if very attractive states appear to them, such as a lovely woman or a handsome man, their minds will not be moved.

At this level, they experience no greed for wealth, sex, fame, food, or sleep. They are indifferent to all of these desires. Only those who reach this level of skill can be called, “One who has realized the fruition”. An Arhat of the First Fruition makes no sound with his feet when he walks. His feet are an inch or so above the earth. Why? People who have attained the fruition are possessed of kindness and compassion. They are extremely concerned about not harming small insects as they walk, so they prefer to travel in the air.

Merging with the great void,
we have a sudden breakthrough.

Here in the Chan Hall, we should work at our cultivation to the point that we are unaware of the heavens above, people in between, and the earth below. If heaven, earth, and people have all disappeared, and north, south, east, and west are forgotten, then right at that point, when not even a single thought comes forth, the entire substance can manifest. Then, we will obtain the great functioning of the entire substance. However, if we indulge in idle thoughts all day long, there will certainly be no response to our efforts. Thus, we have to work to the point where not a single thought arises, and when we walk, we are not aware that we are walking. When we stand, we are not aware that we are standing. When we sit, we are unconscious of sitting. When we lie down, we are not conscious of lying down. We have no conscious awareness of walking, standing, sitting, and lying down. At that point,

We eat, but are not aware of
consuming a single grain of rice.
We dress, but are unaware of
putting on a single stitch.

The ego merges with space itself at that point. When we can unite with space, then we can have a sudden breakthrough and instantly understand all things. That is the state of sudden enlightenment. Sudden enlightenment is a result of daily cultivation. When we get a response from our daily efforts, we can suddenly become enlightened. If we normally do not cultivate, then we will never gain sudden enlightenment.

Similarly, after a child is born, he is steeped in words and sounds everyday. When the time comes, he is naturally able to talk. When he utters his very first word, it is analogous to the enlightenment experience. Then when the time comes, he will naturally be able to walk, and that first step he takes is also like the enlightenment experience. How can he take his first step? It is because he has been observing how adults walk everyday. Being steeped in that environment, very naturally he will be able to walk.

Cultivation works the same way. We cultivate today, we cultivate tomorrow, we cultivate on and on until our skills elicit a response. Then, when not a single thought is produced and our idle thoughts are dispelled, we will be enlightened. This form of enlightenment may be due to cultivating diligently every day for every moment in this lifetime. When your skill matures, you will be enlightened. This enlightenment is due to diligent cultivation in this lifetime.

At this point, someone might say, “I have seen a person who did not cultivate hard at all, and yet not long after coming to the Chan hall, he became enlightened. What is the reason?” That case is unique. Although the person did not cultivate hard in this lifetime, he had been cultivating hard in his previous lives. Not only did he cultivate, but also he had cultivated in each and every moment. However, he was just a little short of enlightenment. In this lifetime, when he encountered this state again, he became enlightened.

Although sudden enlightenment comes in a moment, it still depends on all the good roots one has carefully and continually nurtured in past lives. We are like a farmer planting a field. In the spring, he sows the seeds. In the summer, he weeds and hoes. Then in the autumn, there are crops to harvest. If he does not sow the seeds in spring, how can he reap the harvest when autumn comes? As the saying goes,

“One share of plowing and weeding done yields one share of harvest”.

We, cultivators of the Way, are the same. Regardless of whether we are enlightened or not, we should still be courageous and vigorous in our cultivation. We should energetically stride forward. Then we have hope of gathering our harvest in the final moment and recognize our original face.

When sitting in meditation, do not seek for spiritual penetrations.

When sitting in meditation, do not seek for spiritual penetrations or for any efficacious result. First, make your body clean without any sicknesses. In this way, no deviant energy will be able to penetrate your boundary. If you are constantly filled with great proper energy and have an indomitable spirit, you will naturally give rise to proper knowledge and proper views. Your conduct and actions will accord with principle. This is the benefit of sitting in meditation.

If, in every instant, your state of mind does not give rise to ripples such that you are without afflictions, without mark of right and wrong, and without mark of people and self, then you are applying effort and this is the efficacious result of sitting in meditation.

As for the efficacy of investigating Chan, you can experience it for yourself. You can return the light and illuminate within and ask yourself, “Am I still as gluttonous as I was before practicing Chan sitting? Am I still as materialistic as before? Have I corrected my improper habits and shortcomings? If I meet with unreasonable circumstances or matters that go against my wishes, do thoughts of affliction still arise?” If the answers are “yes”, then I can tell you that you have not progressed much from sitting in Chan. If you can reduce past bad habits and shortcomings, then you have some good news in your cultivation skill. You can examine yourself as follows:

1) Let us take a look at eating, for instance. If you could eat both tasty and non-tasty food with the same state of mind, then you would have chased away the greedy ghost.

2) Performing tasks: Is it the case that we will do anything that is beneficial to us and that we will not do anything that does not benefit ourselves? Are we very lazy, always seeking ease and comfort? If so, our skill in Chan samadhi has not improved. If you could change and be willing to do whatever might benefit others, and focus on being of service to the multitudes while not paying attention to your own personal matters, then you could get rid of the lazy ghost. If you could become more energetic day by day and were not always in a daze, then you could chase away the sleepy ghost. If you can chase away the greedy ghost, lazy ghost and sleepy ghost, then you gain preliminary skill in Chan meditation.

In this way, your spirit and temperament will definitely be quite different from the past and you will undergo a great change in personality. As the saying goes, “In the same temple but a different god”. It can also be said “In the same temple but a different ghost”. In the past, you were a ghost king, but now you are a Bodhisattva. Perhaps, you had an evil heart in the past but now you have the heart of a Bodhisattva.

Demonic power causes you to think of retreating.

All of you should realize that cultivating the spiritual path is not an easy matter. If you decide to cultivate, then demons will come around. They will not come from only one direction, they will come from all directions at once. There are demons of sickness, demons of vexation, demons in the heavens, human demons, and also demonic ghosts. There are demonesses as well. Demons appear, from places that you do not expect, to disturb you so that your resolve will waver and your cultivation will falter. They use many tricks to seduce and tempt you. They also threaten you, trying to get you to retreat in fear. They hope your samadhi power will vanish and your resolve for the spiritual path will disappear.

States may be false or true.

Just about the time your meditation is starting to have some success, the demons appear to test your resolve and to challenge your work in the spiritual path. They may appear as a very beautiful woman or a handsome man who comes to seduce you. If the sight does not disturb you, then you pass your test. But if you are distracted by this illusion, you will fall. Right there is the critical moment. Just that is the test. So I exhort you at all costs, do not fail such tests. If you fail, then once you fall, you will regret it forever. When states arise to challenge your resolve, you should test the state to see whether or not it is true.

What should your method of testing be? It is very simple. Just recite the name of Amitabha Buddha. Recite with singleminded, unwavering concentration. If it is a false state, then it will gradually disappear until it vanishes completely. If it is a true state, then the longer you recite, the clearer the state will grow. Chan meditators who do not understand this method will fall into the demons’ traps. They will fall among the demons and their work in the spiritual path will be scattered and lost. Such cultivators will lose their opportunity for enlightenment after they join the demons.

As soon as you cultivate the spiritual path, demons will appear.

When I was young, I heard someone said, “As soon as you cultivate the spiritual path, demons will appear.” I did not believe it and arrogantly said, “I am not afraid of demons at all! Witches, ghosts, and goblins do not frighten me in the least.” I thought that it did not matter what I said. Who could have guessed that soon after my boast, a demon would show up? What kind of demon was it? It was a demon of sickness, which made me so ill that I lost consciousness for seven or eight days. I lapsed into a total coma. Only then did I realize that my skill was far from the mark and that I had failed my test.

Maybe I was not afraid of witches, ghosts or goblins, or even celestial demons and heretics. But I was afraid, as it turned out, of sickness demons. I could not subdue them. I could not handle them. I could not endure their attack. So we cultivators of the spiritual path cannot claim proudly that we fear nothing. As soon as we become self-satisfied and arrogant, troubles come seeking for us. Well, how should cultivators of the spiritual path be, then? We should maintain a humble and circumspect attitude, and be as cautious as if we were treading on the brink of a deep abyss, or as if we were standing on thin ice. At all times, we should be prudent and careful. We should pay attention and stay alert. Only then can we really cultivate the spiritual path. To sum it up, talk less and meditate more. This is the fundamental requisite of cultivation.

If we awaken to what we see,
we can transcend the mundane world.

When cultivators of the spiritual path actually gain some accomplishment, they get it with someone’s help. Who helps them? Demons bring cultivators to accomplishment. This is just like a knife being honed on a whetstone, so that it becomes very sharp. When a cultivator realizes the light of wisdom, it is with the help of the demons. Thus, we can look upon demons as Dharma-protectors who help us in reverse. There is a saying:

If we awaken to what we see,
we can transcend the mundane world.
If we are confused by what we see,
then we will continue to transmigrate.

With samadhi power,
we need not fear demons.

If we can awaken to and understand states as they appear, then we can transcend this mundane world. If we do not awaken and are instead confused by states as they occur, then we may fall so far that we end up in the hells. Cultivators of the spiritual path should not fear the presence of demons. We need only fear that our own concentration power will be insufficient to withstand them. We should realize that demons can help us along. They test us to see whether or not our spiritual skill is genuine and to see whether or not our samadhi power can endure them. If we have skill and samadhi, then no matter what demon comes, it will not be
able to shake us.

By neither hurrying nor slacking off,
we will succeed.

When practicing Chan meditation, we must not be too hurried. But we must also not slack off. If we are too hurried, we run the risk of overdoing it. If we slack off, we will fail to apply enough effort. Cultivating the spiritual path requires holding to the Middle Way. There is a saying,

Hurrying makes things too tight.
Slacking off lets things get too loose.
By not hurrying and not slacking off,
We can succeed at what we do.

If we apply effort in this way everyday and in every moment, without hurrying or slacking off, eventually our skill will generate a response. When this happens, we will achieve an inconceivable state. Those of you who have attained this state should not be overly happy, and those who have not, should not be unduly sad. If a practitioner becomes overly happy, demon of happiness can come and disrupt his samadhi power, causing that person to laugh and smile unnaturally all day long. If somebody asks him what he is laughing about, he will not know.

If he does not even know why he is laughing, then basically he has lost his senses. He has gone mad. A demon of madness has already possessed him. Conversely, if a practitioner becomes excessively sad, worried, or depressed, a demon of sadness can come and disrupt her samadhi power, causing her to sob and cry unnaturally all day long. If someone asks her why she is crying, she may reply, “Beings are suffering so much! They are so pitiful! I wish to cross over all beings.” However, if she cannot even cross over herself, how can she possibly save others? Excessive displays
of sorrow are an indication that a person has been possessed by a demon of sadness.

Do not be moved by sounds

When we sit in meditation, we should not be moved by sounds or be turned by forms. Some people may have cultivated for a long time, but when states arise, they attach to them. We should not do that. We should hear without listening. We should see without perceiving. Not listening and not perceiving, we will not be moved by states.

Do not harbor thoughts of hatred and love

As all dharmas are the Buddhadharma, how could there be some dharmas that we like and some that we dislike? In investigating Chan, we should work on this very thing. We should not harbor thoughts of hatred and love, but should instead bring our minds to a state of equanimity. In a still spring pond, undisturbed even by ripples, silt will naturally settle to the bottom and the water will become clear. Investigating Chan is also like that. If no ripples of false thoughts stir in our minds, then the Dharma-body will manifest. The Dharma I have just spoken is very important. I hope that all of you will cultivate according to this principle, for if you do, you will very quickly open your wisdom.

What is spoken is the Dharma.
Practice of it is the Way.

If we understand the Dharma and yet do not cultivate the Way, we will not make any progress.

No matter what happens,
remain in unmoving suchness.

When we sit in meditation, all kinds of different states may arise. Regardless of whether a state is wholesome or unwholesome, we should not pay too much attention to it. If we pay attention to it, we will be turned by the state. If we can just ignore it, then we will not be turned by it. Sometimes, Chan cultivators may feel as if they are as large as empty space. At other times, they may feel that they are even smaller than a speck of dust. There are occasions when they feel as though their bodies no longer exist, and they do not know where they have gone. Sometimes, they may feel unbearably cold.

At other times, they may feel unbearably hot. Sometimes, they feel that their bodies are harder and stronger than vajra. At other times, their bodies may feel as soft and light as cotton. Sometimes, they may feel their bodies charged with energy akin to electricity. At other times, they may feel that they are emitting bright light. In a nutshell, such states are boundless and endless, but we should not become attached to any of them. If we become attached to them, then we may enter a demonic state. As long as we remain unattached, we will not have any problem.

The Shurangama Sutra says that whatever states arise, if we do not discriminate and instead act as if nothing is happening, then we will be fine. However, if we decide that we must be special to be able to experience such a terrific state, we will fall and become possessed by a demon. Whatever states we encounter, we must remain unmoved.

Eventually, we will enter unmoving suchness and gain samadhi power that is perfectly clear and constantly bright. Then, no matter what happens, we will be able to turn the state around instead of being turned by it.

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