The Three Stages of Chan Meditation by Master Sheng Yen


The Three Stages of Chan Meditation by Master Sheng Yen


This is the transcript of a talk given by Master Sheng Yen in 1977, at the beginning of his teaching career in the US. It was originally published in a small pamphlet. While information in the article pertaining to lessons offered by the master is outdated, its overview of the essence of Chan practice is timeless.

I wish to start by telling you that Chan is not the same as knowledge, yet knowledge is not completely apart from Chan. Chan is not just religion, yet the achievements of religion can be reached through Chan. Chan is not philosophy, yet philosophy can in no way exceed the scope of Chan. Chan is not science, yet the spirit of emphasizing reality and experience is also required in Chan. Therefore, please do not try to explore the content of Chan motivated by mere curiosity, for Chan is not something new brought here [to the USA] by Orientals; Chan is present everywhere, in space without limit and time without end. However before the Buddhism of the East was propagated in the western world, the people of the West never knew of the existence of Chan. The Chan taught by Orientals in the West is not, in fact, the real Chan. It is the method to realize Chan. Chan was first discovered by a prince named Siddhartha Gautama (called Shakyamuni after his enlightenment), who was born in India about 2500 years ago. After he became enlightened and was called a Buddha, he taught us the method to know Chan. This method was transmitted from India to China, and then to Japan. In India it was called dhyana, which is pronounced “Chan” in Chinese, and “Zen” in Japanese. Actually, all three are identical.

Chan has universal and eternal existence. It has no need of any teacher to transmit it; what is transmitted by teachers is just the method by which one can personally experience this Chan.

Some people mistakenly understand Chan to be some kind of mysterious experience; others think that one can attain supernatural powers through the experience of Chan. Of course, the process of practicing Chan meditation may cause various kinds of strange occurrences on the level of mental and physical sensation; and also, through the practice of unifying body and mind, one may be able to attain the mental power to control or alter external things. But such phenomena, which are looked upon as mysteries of religion, are not the aim of Chan practice, because they can only satisfy one’s curiosity or megalomania, and cannot solve the actual problems of peoples lives.

Chan starts from the root of the problem. It does not start with the idea of conquering the external social and material environments, but starts with gaining thorough knowledge of one’s own self. The moment you know what your self is, this “I” that you now take to be yourself will simultaneously disappear. We call this new knowledge of the notion of self “enlightenment” or “seeing ones basic nature”. This is the beginning of helping you to thoroughly solve real problems. In the end, you will discover that you the individual, together with the whole of existence, are but one totality which cannot be divided.

Because you yourself have imperfections, you therefore feel the environment is imperfect. It is like a mirror with an uneven surface, the images reflected in it are also distorted. Or, it is like the surface of water disturbed by ripples, the moon reflected in it is irregular and unsettled. If the surface of the mirror is clear and smooth, or if the air on the surface of the water is still and the ripples calmed, then the reflection in the mirror and the moon in the water will be clear and exact. Therefore, from the point of view of Chan, the major cause of the pain and misfortune suffered by humanity is not the treacherous environment of the world in which we live, nor the dreadful society of humankind, but the fact that we have never been able to recognize our basic nature. So the method of Chan is not to direct us to evade reality, nor to shut our eyes like the African ostrich when enemies come, and bury our heads in the sand, thinking all problems are solved. Chan is not a self-hypnotizing idealism.

By the practice of Chan one can eliminate the “I”; not only the selfish, small “I”, but also the large “I”, which in philosophy is called “Truth” or “the Essence”. Only then is there absolute freedom. Thus an accomplished Chan practitioner never feels that any responsibility is a burden, nor does he feel the pressure that the conditions of life exert on people. He only feels that he is perpetually bringing the vitality of life into full activity. This is the expression of absolute freedom. Therefore the life of Chan is inevitably normal and positive, happy and open. The reason for this is that the practice of Chan will continually provide you with a means to excavate your precious mine of wisdom. The deeper the excavation, the higher the wisdom that is attained, until eventually you obtain all the wisdom of the entire universe. At that time, there is not a single thing in all of time and space that is not contained within the scope of your wisdom. At that stage wisdom becomes absolute; and since it is absolute, the term wisdom serves no further purpose. To be sure, at that stage the “I” that motivated you to pursue such things as fame, wealth and power, or to escape from suffering and danger, has completely disappeared. What is more, even the wisdom which eliminated your “I” becomes an unnecessary concept to you.

Of course, from the viewpoint of sudden enlightenment it is very easy for a Chan practitioner to reach this stage; nevertheless before reaching the gate of sudden enlightenment one must exert a great deal of effort on the journey. Otherwise the methods of Chan would be useless.


The Three Stages of Chan Meditation

At present, the methods of meditation that I am teaching in the United States are divided into three stages.

Stage 1: To balance the development of body and mind in order to attain mental and physical health

With regard to the body, we stress the demonstration and correction of the postures of walking, standing, sitting and reclining. At the same time we teach various methods of physical exercise for walking, standing, sitting and reclining. They are unique exercise methods combining Indian Hatha Yoga and Chinese Tao-yin, and can bring physical health as well as results in meditation. Thus, one who practices Chan and has obtained good results will definitely have a strong body capable of enduring hardship. For the mind we emphasize the elimination of impatience, suspicion, anxiety, fear and frustration, so as to establish a state of self-confidence, determination, optimism, peace and stability.

A good student, after five or ten lessons here, will reach the first stage and be able to obtain results in the above two areas. One of our student’s reports stated: “This kind of Chan class is especially good for someone like myself who, by profession or habit, has been used to having the brain functioning just about every minute of the day. I often find this Chan sitting very helpful as rest or relief. So even for no greater purpose, this Chan class has been very useful and should be highly recommended.” [from Chan Magazine Vol.1; No.1]

In the first lesson of each class, I always ask each of the students individually his or her purpose in learning Chan whether he or she hoped to benefit the body, or sought help for the mind. The answers show that the latter were in the majority. This indicates that people living in American society today, under the strain and pressure of the present environment, suffer excessive tension, and many have lost their mental balance. Some are so severely tense that they have to consult a psychiatrist. Among those who come to learn Chan, I have one woman student, an outstanding lecturer in a well-known university, who asked me at the first meeting if I could help to relieve her from tense and uneasy moods. I told her that for a Chan practitioner this is a very simple matter. After five lessons she felt that Chan was a great blessing to her life.

The method of the first stage is very simple. Mainly it requires you to relax all the muscles and nerves of your entire body, and concentrate your attention on the method you have just learned. Because the tension of your muscles and nerves affects the activity of the brain, the key is therefore to reduce the burden on your brain. When your wandering thoughts and illusions decrease, your brain will gradually get a little rest. As its need of blood is reduced, more blood will circulate through the entire body. Meanwhile, because of the relaxation of the brain, all the muscles also relax; thus your blood vessels expand, you feel comfortable all over, your spirit feels fresh and alert, and your mental responses are naturally lighter and more lively.

If one’s object of study is just to acquire physical and mental balance, and not to study meditation proper, then one will probably feel that the completion of the first stage is enough; but many students are not content with this, and indeed, some from the outset are looking for the goal of the second stage.

Stage 2: From the sense of the small “I”

The first stage only helps to bring concentration to your confused mind; but when you practice concentration, other scattered thoughts continue to appear in your mind – sometimes many, sometimes a few. The concept of your purpose in practicing Chan is for mental and physical benefits. This is a stage where your concept is purely self-centered. There is no mention of philosophical ideals or religious experience. When you reach the second stage, it will enable you to liberate yourself from the narrow view of the “I”. In the second stage you begin to enter the stage of meditation. When you practice the method of cultivation taught by your teacher, you will enlarge the sphere of the outlook of the small “I” until it coincides with time and space. The small “I” merges into the entire universe, forming a unity. When you look inward, the depth is limitless; when you look outward, the breadth is limitless. Since you have joined and become one with universe, the world of your own body and mind no longer exists. What exists is the universe, which is infinite in depth and breadth. You yourself are not only a part of the universe, but also the totality of it.

When you achieve this experience in your Chan sitting, you will then understand what is meant in philosophy by principle or basic substance, and also what phenomenal existence is. All phenomena are the floating surface or perceptible layer of basic substance. From the shallow point of view, the phenomena have innumerable distinctions and each has different characteristics; in reality, the differences between the phenomena do not impair the totality of basic substance. For instance, on the planet on which we live, there are countless kinds of animals, plants, minerals, vapors, liquids and solids which incessantly arise, change and perish, constituting the phenomena of the earth. However, seen from another planet, the earth is just one body. When we have the opportunity to free ourselves from the bonds of self or subjective views, to assume the objective standpoint of the whole and observe all phenomena together, we can eliminate opposing and contradictory views. Take a tree as an example. From the standpoint of the individual leaves and branches, they are all distinct from one another, and can also be perceived to rub against one another. However, from the standpoint of the trunk and roots, all parts without exception are of one unified whole.

In the course of this second stage, you have realized that you not only have an independent individual existence, but you also have a universal existence together with this limitlessly deep and wide cosmos, and therefore the confrontation between you and the surrounding environment exists no more. Discontent, hatred, love, desire – in other words dispositions of rejecting and grasping disappear naturally, and you sense a feeling of peace and satisfaction. Because you have eliminated the selfish small “I”, you are able to look upon all people and all things as if they were phenomena produced from your own substance, and so you will love all people and all things in the same way you loved and watched over your small “I”. This is the mind of a great philosopher.

Naturally, all great religious figures must have gone through the experiences of this second stage, where they free themselves from the confines of the small “I”, and discover that their own basic substance is none other than the existence of the entire universe, and that there is no difference between themselves and everything in the universe. All phenomena are manifestations of their own nature. They have the duty to love and watch over all things, and also have the right to manage them; just as we have the duty to love our own children and the right to manage the property that belongs to us. This is the formation of the relationship between the deity and the multitude of things he created. Such people personify the basic substance of the universe which they experience through meditation, and create the belief in God. They substantiate this idea of a large “I” the self-love of God and formulate the mission of being a savior of the world or an emissary of God. They unify all phenomena and look upon them as objects that were created and are to be saved. Consequently, some religious figures think that the basic nature of their souls is the same as that of the deity, and that they are human incarnations of the deity. In this way, they consider themselves to be saviors of the world. Others think that although the basic nature of their souls is not identical to and inseparable from that of the deity, the phenomenon of their incarnation shows that they were sent to this world by God as messengers to promulgate God’s intention.

Generally, when philosophers or religious figures reach the height of the second stage, they feel that their wisdom is unlimited, their power is infinite, and their lives are eternal. When the scope of the “I” enlarges, self-confidence accordingly gets stronger, but this stronger self-confidence is in fact merely the unlimited escalation of a sense of superiority and pride. It is therefore termed large “I”, and does not mean that absolute freedom from vexations has been achieved.

Stage 3: From the large “I” to no “I”

When one reaches the height of the second stage, he realizes that the concept of the “I” does not exist. But he has only abandoned the small “I” and has not negated the concept of basic substance or the existence of God; you may call it Truth, the one and only God, the Almighty, the Unchanging Principle, or even the Buddha of Buddhism. If you think that it is real, then you are still in the realm of the big “I” and have not left the sphere of philosophy and religion.

I must emphasize that the content of Chan does not appear until the third stage. Chan is unimaginable. It is neither a concept nor a feeling. It is impossible to describe it in any terms abstract or concrete. Though meditation is ordinarily the proper path leading to Chan, once you have arrived at the door of Chan, even the method of meditation is rendered useless. It is like using various means of transportation on a long journey. When you reach the final destination, you find a steep cliff standing right in front of you. It is so high you cannot see its top, and so wide that its side cannot be found. At this time a person who has been to the other side of the cliff comes to tell you that on the other side lies the world of Chan. When you scale it you will enter Chan. And yet, he tells you not to depend on any means of transportation to fly over, bypass, or penetrate through it, because it is infinity itself, and there is no way to scale it.

Even an outstanding Chan master able to bring his student to this place will find himself unable to help any more. Although he has been to the other side, he cannot take you there with him, just as a mother’s own eating and drinking cannot take the hunger away from the child who refuses to eat or drink. At that time, the only help he can give you is to tell you to discard all your experiences, your knowledge, and all the things and ideas that you think are the most reliable, most magnificent, and most real, even including your hope to get to the world of Chan. It is as if you were entering a sacred building. Before you do so, the guard tells you that you must not carry any weapon, that you must take off all your clothes, and that not only must you be completely naked you also have to leave your body and soul behind. Then you can enter.

Because Chan is a world where there is no self, if there is still any attachment at all in your mind, there is no way you can harmonize with Chan. Therefore, Chan is the territory of the wise, and the territory of the brave. Not being wise, one would not believe that after he has abandoned all attachments another world could appear before him. Not being brave, one would find it very hard to discard everything he has accumulated in this life – ideals and knowledge, spiritual and material things.

You may ask what benefit we would get after making such great sacrifices to enter the world of Chan. Let me tell you that you cannot enter the world of Chan while this question is still with you. Looking for benefit, either for self or for others, is in the “I”-oriented stage. The sixth patriarch of the Chan sect in China taught people that the way to enter the enlightenment of the realm of Chan is: 
“Neither think of good, nor think of evil.” That is, you eliminate such opposing views as self and other, inner and outer, being and non-being, large and small, good and bad, vexation and Bodhi, illusion and enlightenment, false and true, or suffering of birth and death and joy of emancipation. Only then can the realm of Chan or enlightenment appear and bring you a new life.

This new life you have had all along, and yet you have never discovered it. In the Chan sect we call it your original face before you were born. This is not the small “I” of body and mind, nor the large “I” of the world and universe. This is absolute freedom, free from the misery of all vexations and bonds. To enter Chan as described above is not easy. Many people have studied and meditated for decades, and still have never gained entrance to the door of Chan. It will not be difficult, however, when your causes and conditions are mature, or if you happen to have a good Chan master who guides you with full attention. This Master may adopt various attitudes, actions and verbal expressions which may seem ridiculous to you, as indirect means of assisting you to achieve your goal speedily. And when the Master tells you that you have now entered the gate, you will suddenly realize that there is no gate to Chan. Before entering, you cannot see where the gate is, and after entering you find the gate non-existent. Otherwise there will be the distinction between inside and outside, the enlightened and the ignorant; and if there are such distinctions, then it is still not Chan.

When you are in the second stage, although you feel that the “I” does not exist, the basic substance of the universe, or the Supreme Truth, still exists. Although you recognize that all the different phenomena are the extension of this basic substance or Supreme Truth, yet there still exists the opposition of basic substance versus external phenomena. Not until the distinctions of all phenomena disappear, and everything goes back to truth or Heaven, will you have absolute peace and unity. As long as the world of phenomena is still active, you cannot do away with conflict, calamity, suffering and crime. Therefore, although philosophers and religious figures perceive the peace of the original substance, they still have no way to get rid of the confusion of phenomena.

One who has entered Chan does not see basic substance and phenomena as two things standing in opposition to each other. They cannot even be illustrated as being the back and palm of a hand. This is because phenomena themselves are basic substance, and apart from phenomena there is no basic substance to be found. The reality of basic substance exists right in the unreality of phenomena, which change ceaselessly and have no constant form. This is the Truth. When you experience that phenomena are unreal, you will then be free from the concept of self and other, right and wrong, and free from the vexations of greed, hatred, worry and pride. You will not need to search for peace and purity, and you will not need to detest evil vexations and impurity. Although you live in the world of phenomenal reality, to you, any environment is a Buddha’s Pure Land. To an unenlightened person, you are but an ordinary person. To you, all ordinary people are identical with Buddha. You will feel that your own self-nature is the same as that of all Buddhas, and the self-nature of Buddhas is universal throughout time and space. You will spontaneously apply your wisdom and wealth, giving to all sentient beings everywhere, throughout all time and space.

What I have said reveals a small part of the feeling of one who has entered the enlightened realm of Chan, and is also the course which one follows in order to depart from the small “I” and arrive at the stage of no “I”. Nevertheless, a newly enlightened person who has just entered the realm of Chan is still at the starting section of the entire passage of Chan. He is like one who has just had his first sip of port. He knows its taste now, but the wine will not remain in his mouth forever. The purpose of Chan is not just to let you take one sip, but to have your entire life merge with and dissolve in the wine, even, to the point that you forget the existence of yourself and the wine. After tasting the first sip of egolessness, how much farther must one travel?

What kinds of things remain to be seen?

I will tell you when I have the chance!

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