WHAT IS DHYANA? by Master Sheng Yen


WHAT IS DHYANA? by Master Sheng Yen


Lecture Given By Master Sheng-yen on May 27, 1984

“Virtuous men, if after awakening to the pure nature of complete enlightenment, these Bodhisattvas using this pure Bodhi mind grasp at neither illusions and transformations, nor all states of stillness, they will see clearly that body and mind are hindrances. They will be freed from basic ignorance. They will not cling to abstractions, and they will forever be beyond both hindering and non-hindering states. They will feel comfortable and at ease in the use of body, mind, and universe. While still in the phenomenal world they will be like the far-reaching sound of a musical instrument, for neither pleasure nor nirvana will obstruct them any longer. Then inwardly they will experience a lightness of body and mind, and they will feel at ease in that state of stillness, that state of extinction of passion. Thus this stage of wonderful enlightenment will be in harmony with the condition of nirvana which is beyond body and mind, beyond the conception of an ego, a personality, wherein a being, or life, is just a passing thought. This experience is called Dhyana.”(see note 1)

This passage is from the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment. In that sutra the Bodhisattvas ask the Buddha about methods of practice. He answers that there are three categories: samatha, samapatti, and dhyana. The first two have previously been discussed. It should also be noted that here the meaning of the word dhyana is not exactly the same as the term dhyana used in the Indian tradition.

In the Lankavatara Sutra it is said that genuine Buddhadharma is apart from the form of any words, any language. “Words and language” refers not to a specialized meaning taking the ordinary usage of the word, but to the general meaning of anything that can be expressed, received, communicated, represented either through our usual words and language, or through our various senses. What we can see, what we can perceive, what with our mouth we can express in words, or can write, what meanings we express with our body gestures, body language; all this would be included in the general interpretation of “words and language.”

The Lankavatara Sutra also says that genuine Buddhadharma is apart from any form of mental activity – that includes our feeling which gives rise to our thinking. With regard to the mental activities of feeling and thinking, certain symbols have to be used. The words that we have, the language that we have, the certain kinds of shapes, or whatever – using these symbols we can have our feelings, our thinking. And whenever we are we can have our feelings, our thinking. And whenever we are using these symbols and having these mental activities, regardless of whether our mental stage is a unified or a scattered mind, this state cannot be called pure. When there is no mental activity whatsoever, only then is a mental state pure.

Returning from Taiwan via Korean Airline, Shih-fu sat next to an American missionary going to Korea from Taiwan. This person asked Shih-fu what religion he practiced. Shih-fu said, “Buddhism.” The missionary found it somewhat funny. Looking through the airline magazine he came upon an article about the various religions in Korea. With regard to Buddhism it mentioned a certain temple, a monastery in Korea with a thousand Buddha statues. The missionary showed the picture to Shih-fu, saying “O.K., this is the religion you believe in – isn’t that true?” Shih-fu said, “Indeed so.” Again the man laughed at it.

“These Buddha statues are made of wood,” he said, pointing at them. “Do you believe they are God?” Shih-fu said, “Well, I do not believe in any god.” And the person asked, “What do you believe in?” Shih-fu said, “So far as I am concerned, I don’t believe in anything. But Buddhism does use these statues.” The missionary said, “These statues were made of wood. Do you believe that they are made of wood?” “Indeed I believe the statues are made from wood.” Then the person wanted to know, “Well, since these statues are made from wood, do you think they are of any use at all?” Shih-fu replied, “There are people who can benefit from having these statues around; hence Buddhism does make use of these statues.”

This exchange happened at a time shortly after the Pope had visited Korea, so the magazine, on the opposite page, talked about Catholicism in that country. There were churches, with a cross. Now it was Shih-fu’s turn. He pointed at the cross and said, “Is this the religion you believe in?” The missionary answered, “Yes.” Shih-fu said, “Do you believe that the cross here is God?” The man gave thought to it, and replied, “God is not something that can be represented by such a physical form. The cross is only a symbol.” So Shih-fu responded, “In that case, what you said about the use of having the cross in the church is very similar to what I said about having the statues in the temples.”

Then the missionary objected, saying, “No. The statue is a symbol of God’s love for mankind, so Jesus is on the cross. But if people were to prostrate, or pay respect to idols, that would be a sin.” Then Shih-fu said, “But according to Buddhist sutras it is not necessary to pay respect to the cross.” And the person stated, “What you say is not correct. According to the Christian Bible, to pay respect to statues, idols is wrong, is a sin.” Shih-fu said, “In that case, if your base is according to your Christian Bible, and you say that what I do is wrong, then equally I can be based upon Buddhist sutras and say that for you to pay respect to the cross is wrong, is equally a sin. Like that we will always be quarreling, and we will never get across with each other. I know that it’s only because you have faith in your religion that you became a Christian, became a Catholic. You should also understand that it is because I have faith that I became a Buddhist. So each of us has our foundation. You base it on your Christian Bible and I base it on the Buddhist sutras.”

Another time a Catholic father once told Shih-fu that on the highest level God is formless – God does not require persons to pay respect or have adoration for God. It is very natural for God to love people, but God does not demand that people should also love God, because people basically have ignorance. To say that it is necessary for people to pay respect to God, is only because of the need of people themselves.

Shih-fu answered the father, “Well, according to what you just said, Catholic ideas are very close to Buddhism.” Nonetheless, the ideas expressed by that Catholic father are not those typical of common Catholicism. So why does Shih-fu get into those examples? He is trying to point out that they have to do with using different kinds of forms, descriptions, words and language. All opposition between different religions comes from these attachments to certain concepts, to certain forms, to certain descriptions; however, if we are going to talk about the third category of this method of practice — dhyana — then all concepts, all forms of description, words and language, have to be left behind.

When it finally came time to part from the American missionary, Shih-fu told him, “Speaking for myself, I would say that I do not have to deny the existence of God. And also, for Buddhists there are indeed Buddhas. But again, I do not believe in Buddhas.” The man was surprised. He asked, “How can it be possible for a Buddhist not to believe in Buddhas?” Shih-fu said, “It’s nothing surprising. It’s not just me – it will be the same for anyone who has done sufficient practice in Buddhadharma. That is, all Buddhas are people of the past. Whether there are any Buddhas now at this moment is irrelevant to me. All Buddhists who have done sufficient practice would not hold any attachment to Buddhas. Not only non-Buddhists will find it surprising that genuine Buddhists do not have to believe in Buddhas, but even a lot of Buddhists who do not understand what Ch’an is, will find this surprising, or even repelling.”

Once, when Shih-fu was holding a Ch’an retreat in Taiwan, he said something to this effect: “There’s no Buddha, there’s no Bodhisattva, there’s no Pure Land, there are no deities. You are not allowed to think of anything like these. You just ask yourself where you came from before your present life, where you’re going to after this life, what you are at this moment.”



Lecture Given By Master Sheng-yen on May 27, 1984

Once, when Shih-fu held a Ch’an retreat in Taiwan, one of the participants was an old Buddhist. He heard Shih-fu say, “There’s no Buddha, there’s no Bodhisattva, there’s no Pure Land, there are no deities. You are not allowed to think of anything like these. You just ask yourself where you came from before your present life, where you’re going to after this life, what you are at this moment.” The old Buddhist went to Shih-fu and said, “I would like leave this retreat. I don’t want to go on any further. For thirty years I’ve been practicing Buddhism with the support of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. And the mainstay of my life is that eventually I can be Buddha – that I can seek this Buddha, can seek the Bodhisattvas. Now you are telling me there’s no Buddha, no Bodhisattvas, no Pure Land. I will have lost everything I’ve had in the last thirty years. There’s no way that I can continue with this retreat.” So he left.

Apparently he had never read the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment. Or, if he had, he didn’t understand it. In this sutra there are indeed Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, the Pure Land. And there are dhyana methods, samadhi methods – you can find everything in this sutra. (The word “dhyana” should have the same meaning here as the word “Ch’an” used in the Ch’an sect.) But when you come to the stage described in the methods of dhyana, at this level there’s nothing – no Buddha, no Bodhisattvas, no Pure Land, no samadhi. The dhyana described here is a sudden enlightenment method. For sudden enlightenment method there cannot be attachment. There cannot be dependence, reliance, refuge. As long as there’s any dependence, reliance, attachment, there cannot be sudden enlightenment. For sudden enlightenment to be possible you have to leave everything behind, including yourself. Only then is it possible to see your own Buddha nature.

The sutras do talk about Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Pure Land, etc., But at this level of the dhyana practice method, there’s no such thing. There are differences because of differences in level. We can use our bodies, the environments in which they live, and our mental activities. All of these things we can use to practice, to attain samadhi, or to do various common virtuous actions which can help us to reach the deity levels. But these methods are not enough to bring us to the highest level of enlightenment. They are not capable of that. Body, mind, environment, can be conceived and used as causes and conditions that help us in our practice. But this is true only from the perspective of the gradual practice method. For the sudden enlightenment method body, mind, environment, can only be conceived as illusory states which are hindrances to our practice, and to our getting into the center of the Ch’an, the dhyana.

Shih-fu says actually there’s no such thing as the mind. The mind is only the effect of the environment on us; hence we call this mind illusion. The body is illusory, the environment is illusory, and the effect of the illusory on the mind (the so-called mental processes) is also illusory. Through them we can do either virtuous or unwholesome actions. But Ch’an cannot be acquired through any knowledge, or learning, through God’s or Buddha’s wisdom, or through your own wisdom. If you think that Buddha’s wisdom can help you acquire Ch’an, then you’re relying on external conditions. If you think your own wisdom can help you acquire Ch’an, then you’re relying on internal conditions. You have to leave behind any dependency. Only then can you get into Ch’an.

Sometimes in Ch’an practice, especially during retreat, some of Shih-fu’s students ask him to give them his blessing, because they feel they cannot do the practice well enough by themselves. They think that with Shih-fu’s empowerment they can do better. And Shih-fu says, “No problem. Sure, I’ll help you.” This is the first stage.

After some time, when Shih-fu judges the person to be strong enough, he says, “You have to work on your own. You cannot rely on my help. If I can help you, then it’s as if you don’t have to eat. I will eat your meal for you and you will still feel satisfied, fulfilled. If that can be done, maybe I can help you in your practice.” But basically everyone eats for himself. So people have to depend on themselves for their practice. This is the second stage.

By the third stage, when these people have had some results from the practice, when they feel very reassured, or even proud, they think OK, they can now go their own way. They feel they have attained a certain level. At this point Shih-fu will criticize them, scold them very harshly, tell them they are only playing with demons and ghosts — they are not even human. Through such methods Shih-fu tries to cut off their dependence on anything at all. With the third stage people become attached to the experience they have had, or the self-confidence they have built up, but any attachment to previous experience is a definite no-no. Past experience should be perceived as only past experience and nothing more. Of course, when we practice and we make progress, that progress comes to us through experience, but some people become very contented with their experience, or hope it will come again and again. This is attachment. So even if the experience does come again, it will probably only be on the same level.

A person must leave behind these experiences. Then if one recurs, and the practitioner ceases to perceive it as a sign of progress, attainment or achievement, he will continue to move forward. Leaving all of your experience behind (anything of the body, mind or environment) would be a state of “non-hindrance.” This state of non-hindrance is proper for a beginner. But if one maintains this kind of mentality then it’s natural to develop an attitude of dislike for the world, viewing it as a hindrance. One would tend to be very inactive, and this can only be considered an approximate state of Ch’an. It’s not the genuine state of Ch’an.

Genuine Ch’an, on the other hand, is not to be attached to anything in or outside your mind; but on the other hand, not to have any aversion to anything within or without the mind. You do not perceive body, mind, world, as something that will help you in your practice. And you do not perceive body, mind, world, as something that will hinder you in your practice. You have no attachment; you have no aversion. Body, mind, world, do exist at this stage, but there’s no attachment, no aversion to them. If sentient beings need your help, you will use body, mind, world, to help them. In this case it will be the sentient beings who will benefit from the utilization of the body. If your practice has reached the state wherein you have developed this kind of wisdom, then there’s no body, mind, world for you to practice with. If there’s anything left it belongs to the sentient beings. Ordinary people think of their body, mind, as their own, to use for their own practice. For the Ch’an cultivator at this level, body, mind, world are not his own for his own use (because they have to be left behind in order to enter the state of Ch’an or dhyana), but body, mind, world, are used for the benefit of sentient beings. With this attitude, the Ch’an practitioner is not inactive, not pessimistic, but rather, very active.

The analogy from the sutra talks of the far-reaching sound of a musical instrument, and the sound comes from the string. There is actually no sound within the instrument, within the string, but the sound is transmitted to the outside. In a familiar way the practitioner has to be separate, apart from body, mind, world for wisdom to manifest; but at the same time it is within the body, mind, world, that the wisdom, and the benefit of wisdom, can be attained for sentient beings. Since body, mind, world are only illusion, and illusion is considered vexation, and since vexation itself is illusory, then vexation is the same as nirvana. The Ch’an practitioner has no aversion to the illusory body, mind, world. Even though he lives in a world seemingly full of vexations, his mind is always unmoving, is always in a quiescent state, in a nirvana state. His mind is still. Or it can be said, there is no mind for him to move – because the so-called “mind moving” is only the consequence of the illusory body, the illusory mind, the illusory world. There’s no real mind to be moving.

Up to this point we have been talking about the state of Ch’an practice. Have we ever talked about the method of practice? Yes. Simply not to rely on anything, that itself is the sudden method of practice. If you always find yourself in a state apart from body, mind, world, then this practice. If you still see everything in this world – the red, the green, the good, the bad, the male, the female – then you’re not practicing. The question is, which one of us is practicing Ch’an now? If we are now practicing Ch’an, then apart from body, mind, world, can you hear Shih-fu’s lecture? Is it necessary to come to hear Shih-fu’s lecture? Or is Shih-fu’s lecture necessarily given within the body, mind, world? In the beginning of this lecture (August 1984 Newsletter) we mentioned two lines of the Lankavatara Sutra. The first is that “genuine Buddhadharma is apart from the form of any words, any language” – anything we communicate through our eyes, ears, mouth, etc., The second is that “genuine Buddhadharma is apart from any form of mental activity.” So what Shih-fu has been saying up to this point is only talking about Ch’an. It’s not Ch’an itself. It’s garbage. Nonsense.


When Ch’an Master Kao-feng Yuan-miao (1238-1295) met up with Ch’an Master Hsueh-yen Tsu-ch’in (1216-1287), the latter asked the former : “You’ve been practicing for so long. At this point, can you be your master during the daytime?” (That is to say, do you have a good control over yourself – you don’t think about things you don’t want to think about and you don’t do what you don’t want to do.) Kao-feng immediately replied : “Yes, I can!” This is already a very good accomplishment. Only someone who has practiced for a long time would be able to say this of himself.

Then Hsueh-yen questioned him a second time : “At night in your dreams, can you be your own master?” And again Kao-feng answered promptly : “Yes, I can!”

Hsueh-yen asked a third question : “When you are sleeping without any dreams, where is the master then?”

Now Kao-feng had already been working on the “Wu” kung-an for quite a long time. Upon being asked this question he was completely stumped. He repeated the question to himself but could not give an answer. So Hsueh-yen told Kao-feng: “From now on, do not study any Buddha Dharma, don’t read any sutras or sastras. Just do not bother about anything. Just practice well. And how should you practice? When you are hungry, eat. When you are tired, go to sleep. When you have slept enough, get up and practice well.”

From that time onward, Kao-feng indeed just listened to the master’s words. When he was hungry, he ate, when he felt tired, he went to sleep, and just tried very hard to practice. What did he practice on? He asked himself : “Where is my master?” He kept on using this method for five years. Even during his sleep, he continued asking, “Where is my master?”

There are various stages involved here. The first one is the question of whether we can be our own master during the daytime. What we do not want to think, we will not think about; what we do not want to do, we will not do. How many of you can be your own master in this sense? Why is it that you cannot be your own master? The fact that Master Kao-feng could answer positively to the first question indicates that he is already on a higher level than an ordinary person.

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

Not to have dreams at all is on a higher level still. There are only two kinds of people who do not have dreams when they sleep. One is the idiot, and the other is the saint, or sage. These people have dreamless sleep. They are just in a state of rest. This is very difficult to accomplish. It is already very good if you can reach the level where you no longer have any confused or evil dreams. But it is very hard for the ordinary person to get to the level of not having any dreams at all. This Ch’an Master Kao-feng had already reached the stage where, at least most of the time, he was able to sleep without dreaming. But does that mean that all his problems had been resolved? Actually, being able to sleep without dreams only indicates that he had very good samadhi power. It doesn’t mean that all his problems had been resolved. He still wasn’t enlightened.

Therefore the question that Hsueh-yen put to him was very appropriate, and it became a hua-t’ou for Kao-feng. He just kept on asking himself, “When I go to sleep and don’t have any dreams, where is my master? Where is my master? Where is my master?” He kept on asking for five years, because he had a great doubt associated with this question. But we should remember that even before he started on this hua-t’ou, he had already reached the state where he could be his own master in daytime, at nighttime, and in fact, he had very few dreams. So his practice involved a very long process.

One evening he woke up from sleep and extended his hand to feel for his pillow. At that point, the pillow dropped from the sleeping platform with a thud. At that sound, Kao-feng shouted, “Aha! Now I found you!” The cloud of doubt was broken, he had emerged from the barrel of black pitch and seen the light. This is an example of one practitioner’s path.


Spoken on December 10, 1981
by Master Sheng-yen
in the Assistant’s Training Class

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