Four Views of Ch’an by Master Sheng Yen

Four Views of Ch’an
(Lecture given by Master Sheng-Yen at the Great Taoist Center in Washington, D.C., November 22, 1985)

Let me begin with a koan. In the T’ang dynasty there was a Ch’an patriarch named Yao-shan Wei-yen. A disciple once asked him, “Before Bodhidharma came to China, was there Ch’an in China?” The Master replied, “Ch’an originally existed in China.” “In that case,” the disciple continued, “Why did Bodhidharma come to China?” The Master said, “It is precisely because there was Ch’an in China that Bodhidharma came to China.”

So you see I’ve come to Washington today because there is Ch’an in Washington. I’ve come here because all of you know about Ch’an. Those of you who know something about Ch’an, please raise your hands… Those of you who didn’t raise your hands probably know more than those who did!

Tonight I will talk about Ch’an from four points of view. These topics should help you to raise some questions about Ch’an: the theory of Ch’an, the experience of Ch’an, the goal of Ch’an, and the training and practice of Ch’an.

  1. There is really no theory in Ch’an. If we theorize about Ch’an — that is not Ch’an. Ch’an cannot be understood by any logical reasoning. It can’t be explained in words. Nevertheless, I will use some theoretical description in my talk.

There are two basic concepts associated with Ch’an. One is causes and conditions. The other is emptiness. These two concepts are linked; they cannot be separated. When we talk about causes and conditions and emptiness, we are really talking about the nature of existence, which is temporary and impermanent. All phenomena arise because of the coming together of the proper causes and conditions. All phenomena perish because of change in the causes and conditions.

Chinese Taoism and Confucianism use a text called the “I Ching.” “I” means change. This is continual, constant change. It is called “arising.” Constant arising means that causes and conditions change continually — all phenomena are ever-changing. Ordinary sentient beings see things as arising and perishing. In the “I Ching” there is no perishing, only constant arising. Seeing something disappear, you miss seeing something else arise.

In the Buddhist view, when causes and conditions change, phenomena arise. But because this arising is rooted in temporary, constantly changing causes and conditions, the phenomena which arise can be nothing more than temporary themselves. Because they only have temporary existence, they are said to have no real existence. Hence these phenomena are called empty. Emptiness only means that there is no unchanging eternal existence; it doesn’t mean that nothing exists at all.

All phenomena and existence can arise only because they are empty. It is because they are empty that there is nothing permanent or unchanging about them. If things never changed, there would be no arising. If nothing changed in our present configuration, it would mean that this lecture would go on indefinitely. But when this talk ends, the configuration changes. If everything were unchanging and solid, if there were no emptiness, then this lecture would go on forever. It is because of the present situation — this particular configuration of constantly changing causes and conditions — that we are all gathered in this room.

Therefore when we ask about Ch’an, we find that Ch’an is just a word, a bit of terminology. Very few people can say what it is. For over a thousand years masters and disciples in the Ch’an tradition have been asking questions such as, “What was it that Bodhidharma brought to China?” Many people have sought the answers to these questions. The masters never gave direct answers. Some simply ignored the questions. If they didn’t ignore the question, they only would give very simple answers.

A T’ang dynasty master, Chao-chou once had a disciple who asked him, “Master, what are we really learning here?” Chao-chou said, “All. right, you can now go and have a cup of tea.” Another disciple came and said that he had had a certain experience the day before, and he wanted to know it his experience was really Ch’an. Chao-chou said, “All right, you can have a cup of tea now.” A third disciple was quite puzzled after he heard this exchange. He asked, “Master, you had two disciples ask you entirely different questions, and you simply told them to have a cup of tea. What did you mean by this?” The Master replied, “You can also have a cup of tea.”

There is another story along the same lines involving Chao-chou. Two disciples were arguing. One said, “The Master said that men have Buddha nature, but dogs and cats don’t.” The other disciple said, “That’s impossible, the Master could not have said anything like that.” They both went to see Chao-chou. One said, “Master, you couldn’t possibly have said anything like that.” And the Master said, “You’re right.” But the other disciple said, “I’m positive that is what you said.” And the Master said, “You re right.” A third person, an attendant said, “But Master, only one of them can be right.” And the Master said, “You’re right.”

These stories sound like meaningless exchanges, like nonsense, but the underlying implication is that existence or non-existence, or ideas of right or wrong, are things which only live in your own mind, your personal experience, your knowledge. These things can’t be Ch’an.

  1. The experience of Ch’an must be personal and direct. It cannot come from education or be arrived at by logical reasoning. In a retreat I will often try to help a student get an experience of Ch’an by telling him to bring himself to the state that existed before he was born. After birth, we begin to acquire experience, and we are trying to look beyond what we have learned.

Before your life began, who were you? What was your name? How would you answer these questions? There is a story of a Ch’an Master who told his disciple to wash charcoal until it was clean. The disciple complained that it was simply impossible. A somewhat dimwitted disciple took the charcoal and began to wash it. He didn’t have a thought in his mind other than that his Master had told him to wash the charcoal. So he simply washed the charcoal. One day he asked the Master why the charcoal was still not white. The Master said, “Isn’t it already white?” The disciple took another look at it and said, “Indeed it is white; it has always been white.” When most of us look at charcoal, we see black, but the Master and disciple saw it as white.

In Ch’an we say that training and practice will make our discriminations disappear. These thoughts and feelings of liking or disliking come from our experience. If you can go back to the state before you were born, then you arrive at the point where discriminations do not exist. It no longer matters whether something is black or white. What is important is that your mind is free from discrimination and conceptualization.

In China between the fourth and sixth centuries, there was a period called the Northern and Southern Dynasties. At that time a famous Taoist, T’ao Hung-ching lived in the mountains. He was a well-known scholar, and the emperor had great respect for him, and wanted him to serve as his minister. But T’ao declined. The emperor asked him what it was in the mountains that attracted him so much that he preferred his hermitage to the glories of the court. T’ao wrote an answer to the emperor in the a four-line poem:

You ask me what I find in the mountains,
I say: white clouds are in the mountains,
This I alone can enjoy,
It is not something I can offer you.

The emperor read the poem and realized there was something that made no sense: white clouds can be seen anywhere, not just in the mountains. But the point is that the white clouds that T’ao Hung-ching saw were quite different from the ones the emperor could see. This is experience. A practitioner’s experience of the Tao is quite different from that of a non-practitioner.

There was a famous monk, Han Shan, who was often asked, “What do you have?” He would say that he had everything: “The white clouds in the sky serve as my blanket, the earth is my bed, the mountains, my pillow. And the four seas are not big enough for a bath or a somersault.”

That was his experience: oneness with nature. There was no separation between him and the world. But most people thought that he had nothing. His shoes were made from the bark of a tree; his pants, from the leaves of a tree.

It’s only after you’ve put down everything that you’ve acquired since the time you were born, that a Ch’an experience can manifest. When I teach my students how to practice Ch’an, I tell them to first separate their thoughts into three categories: the past, the present, and the future. Then I tell them to discard the thoughts of the past, then the thoughts of the future. Only thoughts of the present moment are left. The next step is to let go of the present moment, because there is no such thing as the present moment. It is only a bridge between the past and the future. When you let go of the present moment, the Ch’an experience can manifest, but only at the most elementary level.

One question that might occur to you is: we have to discard our experiences until we reach the state we were in before we were born, so does this mean that a new born baby is closest to Ch’an? No, a new born baby does not know about Ch’an because a baby’s mental faculties are hardly developed, and he is not in control of them. The control of mental functioning is necessary. When you have this control, then you can let go of knowledge and reasoning. Then there is a possibility that the Ch’an experience can manifest.

If you knock someone into unconsciousness, is this like Ch’an? This is nonsense. If you know nothing of the past or future, and your mind is a blank, that is also not Ch’an. A mind that is blank in this way is a very tired mind. Only a very clear, alert mind can experience Ch’an.

I can only describe the experience of Ch’an by using an analogy. Consider the surface of water and consider a mirror. The surface of water will move at the slightest touch, but a mirror is unmoving. A mirror can be obscured by dust, but remove the dust and it will reflect clearly. If water is agitated, it will not be able to reflect an image, only a distortion of the image. The movement in water is like the movement in our minds. Our minds move because of the knowledge we have and the experience we have acquired. Because of these things, we are constantly making judgments. Just as moving water cannot reflect well, so a moving mind cannot see clearly — what we see or think we see is not real.

For example, there are about fifty people in the audience. You all have different backgrounds, different experiences, and different levels of education. Because of these differences, each of you will hear the same thing a little differently. Each of you judges this lecture in your own way. It may be one lecture, but it could also be fifty different lectures. That is not Ch’an. If it were, when one person spoke, it would be as if there were one person listening. And if that were the case, there would be no need for me to speak, because you would know what I was going to say before I said it.

This is illustrated by a story from the early days of the Ch’an sect. The emperor at the time asked a certain Ch’an Master to give a discourse. To make ready for the occasion, the emperor commanded his workmen to build an elaborate platform from which the Master would speak. When the time arrived, the Master mounted the platform, sat down, and then quickly left. The emperor was quite surprised. The Master said, “I’ve said everything I wanted to Say.”

The unspoken Dharma and only the unspoken Dharma is the highest Dharma. Whatever can be said or described is not the real Dharma. Chan Masters have been talking about this for many, many years.

When we speak about reflection in water and in a mirror, note that a mirror that is perfectly clean will reflect better than water that is stable and unmoving. However, the Sixth Patriarch was opposed to using the analogy of the mirror. He pointed out that if there were a mirror, there would be a mind, and this would not be Ch’an. Nonetheless, we will use the mirror to a make a point. Later, we will throw out the mirror.

What is reflected by a mirror is outside the mirror. If a person is in a mirror-like state, everything that is reflected is on the outside. For such a person, there is no self involved. What he sees and feels is only the existence of phenomena — when there is no self, there is no experience of discrimination, of liking or disliking.

This is not the ultimate state, because if you have nothing but awareness of the environment and there is no self apparent, there must still be a self to be aware of the environment. Someone who is in this state is certainly in a unified state, because there seems to be no self and only the environment seems to exist. This is called the state of “one mind,” but still it is not Ch’an. There must be “no mind’ if it is to be Ch’an.

A true Ch’an state should not be compared to an all-reflecting mirror. All things exists without the mirror. In this state everything is seen very clearly, but there is no concept of outside or inside, existing or not existing, having or not having.

  1. What is the good of this kind of experience? This leads us to the third section, the goal of Ch’an practice. There are so many benefits to Ch’an practice — for myself and many more for others. These benefits can be seen on three levels: First, there is physical benefit, then mental balance and good mental health, and last, the potential to become enlightened — the spiritual benefit.

By helping a practitioner attain a more stable mind, Ch’an practice can improve mental health. And the reason for an unhealthy body is really psychological imbalance. Ch’an practice can strengthen mental power and capacity. Even with physical sickness, a practitioner will have a positive attitude and will not be hindered from doing what he needs to do. Good mental health is a fundamental aim of the practice, but in the beginning stages, physical strength is acquired through physical sitting. Practicing in this way helps maintain and focus the flow of energy known as “ch’i.” Taoism and Yoga share this aspect of practice.

The highest benefit of practice is enlightenment, the genuine Ch’an experience. What good is this? I can only say this: before enlightenment, there are things that one needs and there are things that one would rather do without, there are things that are liked and things that are disliked. After enlightenment, there is no such thing as that which I need or don’t need, what I like or don’t like. Do you understand? That’s why I said that all of you already know Ch’an. You see, before we are enlightened, we have many vexations, and there are many things that we have to do; there are many things that we don’t want to do. We may seek and attain enlightenment, but once we have experienced it, there is no longer any such thing as enlightenment. At this point there is nothing that we have to do; there’s nothing that we don’t have to do.

Lin-chi Yi-hsuan, a famous Ch’an Master, was studying with his Master when he got enlightened, but his Master was not immediately aware of Lin-chi’s enlightenment. One day the Master was making his rounds and checking to see that all of his students were practicing hard. He came upon Lin-chi lying on his mat, fast asleep. The Master woke him with his staff, and asked, “How can you be so lazy, when everyone around you is practicing diligently?” Lin-chi just looked up at his Master, picked up his blanket and cushion, and went to lie down in another place.

The Master watched Lin-chi move, and asked, “What are you doing now?” Lin-chi Yi-hsuan answered, “What else is there for me to do?” When the Master heard this, he walked over to a disciple who was practicing particularly hard. He took his staff, gave him several stiff blows, and said, “There’s someone over there who’s practicing very hard, what are you doing here, sleeping like this?” The Master’s eldest disciple said to himself, “This old Master has really gone crazy.” From that point on Lin-chi didn’t remain sleeping — he traveled spreading the Dharma. The lineage that evolved from him is called the Lin Chi sect; in Japanese it is known as the Rinzai sect.

The story of Lin-chi shows that after enlightenment, there is nothing, no practice or striving, that is needed for oneself. There are only other sentient beings to work for and to help.

  1. The training and practice of Ch’an can be divided into three levels. First, to move from a scattered to a concentrated mind. Second, to move from a concentrated mind to one-mind. Finally, to let go of even one-mind, and reach no-mind.

The scattered mind is easy to see. We can all be aware of this state where thoughts come and go in a haphazard manner. Let’s try an experiment. Everyone raise your index finger and look at it. Just look, and have no thoughts. Do this in a relaxed manner.

We did that for thirty seconds. Were you able to do it with no thoughts? If you couldn’t do it, you had a scattered mind. When we do things with a scattered mind, we are not using our fullest capacity.

A Ch’an Master once told his disciples: Chan practice is very easy. When you eat, just eat; when you sleep, just sleep; when you walk, just walk.” One disciple said, “I know how to eat, sleep, and walk. Everybody knows that, so is everybody practicing Ch’an?” The Master said, “That’s not true: when you eat, your mind is not on eating; when you sleep your mind is either filled with dreams or lost in a muddled state of blankness; when you walk, you’re just daydreaming.”

Once in our Center in New York, we hired a carpenter to do some work for us. He was nailing a nail into a wall, when he looked out the window, and saw a pretty woman passing by. He hit his finger, and twisted the nail. He had to start all over again. What was he doing with his mind? It certainly wasn’t on his work. Most of us function like this. We must use special methods to bring our scattered minds into a concentrated state. Do as the Master said: when you eat, eat; when you sleep; sleep; when you walk, walk. When you practice, keep your mind in a concentrated state. Then if you hear a sound, visualize or feel something — whatever you do, you will be doing just that and nothing else. This is a concentrated mind.

When you expand this state further, you will eventually get to the point where the separation between self and environment disappears — there is no distinction between you and the world. If you are repeating a mantra, then you and the mantra become one. There are many levels to this state. At the elementary level you and your method of practice become one. A deeper state is when you feel that whatever your senses encounter, what you see and hear, is the same as yourself. At this point there is no distinction between what you see and what you hear. The sense organs no longer have separate functions. This is an intermediate level. Deeper still is the state where you sense an unlimited universe within yourself. Still this is not the experience of Ch ‘an.

From here we must use the methods of Ch’an — the gung-an (koan) and the hua-t’ou — to break apart the state of one-mind. In this way we can reach enlightenment, we can reach Ch’an.

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