Thursday, December 11, 2008
The Heart of Chan can be described in many ways. Broadly speaking, it means to live according to the spirit of Chan and the teachings of past masters. If we look to the teachings left behind by the Patriarchs, or to the sutras for a description, we will find this heart portrayed from many different viewpoints. The Heart of Chan’s Three Freedoms is just looking at this heart from yet another perspective. Although this perspective in itself is not enough to bring about a realization of one’s true nature, it will enable us to immediately set to work bringing about change in our attitudes and outlooks.
Freedom from Anxiety
We can find discussions of the origin and cause of anxiety in the human heart in Western philosophy as well as in Buddhism. Some philosophers have said the universal nature of human anxiety stems from the fact that everyone who comes into this world must face death. From the day we are born, we face death, and death is difficult to confront. Furthermore, we all are aware of death; we do not need to be taught about it, it as it is in our subconscious. From a Dharmic perspective, the anxiety and sadness in our lives originate from attachment to our gains and losses. Anxiety also stems from feeling unable to control our fate, and the impossibility of knowing exactly what the future holds. I do not know if you have noticed, but there is one area of study that interests people everywhere in the world. People from all walks of life, in the East and West, are all particularly interested in fortune telling. The West has its own system of predicting the future, such as the horoscope. The East also has its own methods, and in China we have a particular abundance of such techniques. The flourishing of this kind of scholarship in our culture illustrates that we have a longing to control our destiny. Of course, we could also say that this widespread desire to predict the future illustrates that humans as a whole possess a latent worrying mentality, a wish that by using various forms of fortune telling, by grasping a hold of one’s future, one could melt or dilute the anxiety we have towards the future’s unknowns.
The Chan master Yunmen Wenyan said, “Every day is a good day.” This is the mentality of a Chan practitioner. It is free from anxiety. So, we are capable of thoroughly putting down this fear and anxiety, but where do we start? First, I think we need to put down this anxiety about the future, all of our guesses, worries and fretting over our possible windfalls and setbacks. All of the things that await us in the future are in fact the results of our words and deeds of the present moment. We cannot control all of the external factors of our life, but we can control our own thoughts, speech and actions. Only after we have succeeded in doing this can we grasp hold of the future. In this way, we can genuinely transform our anxiety about the future into the power of the present, into the power of perception, certainty and determination.
In the many utterances left behind by the Chan masters of the past it is not easy to find references to the world or Buddhist country in which they will be reborn. The reason is that they are already in complete control of the present moment. They are already in control of all of their thoughts, words and actions. Having taken hold of the present moment in this way, the future, however it may be, is not a problem. If you want to know what the future will be like, look at what is transpiring right now. Look at the moment-by-moment unfolding of your own thoughts, words and actions. Are they positive or negative? By looking at these things, we can know what the future holds for us. Our future is not some kind of miracle brought about by an unknowable god. If there any miracles to be found, they are in the present moment. Sitting around fretting and worrying will be of absolutely no help towards creating the future you want for yourself. In fact, it is just the opposite. The worry, fear and apprehension are obstacles. If you wish the future to conform to your vision of it, you should start by building its foundations in the present moment. Go and create the future you want! If we are in control of our thoughts, words and deeds of the present moment, there will not be any completely unpredictable events in the future.
Freedom from Regret
Regret is a terrible burden. It is an attitude directed towards all of our actions, speech, thoughts and mistakes of the past. I believe almost everyone has experienced it to some degree. It is a form of attachment, and constrains the heart, fixates it on past events. The heart becomes shackled by our attachment to these events. However, the Heart of Chan is regretless. How was this freedom won? By letting go of attachment. The Heart of Chan is empty, it is like using a bamboo basket to carry water; the water all runs out, it can not remain. The Heart of Chan sees our past, as well as our mistakes and negative karma, from the perspective of a wisdom that knows the true nature of phenomena. It knows that all these things are empty, and therefore not real in the sense that our attachment-filled hearts understand things as existing. Belief in so-called fortune and hardship, which is responsible for so much of the regret we have, is in fact just the creation of the attachment in our hearts. By knowing that the object of our regret as well as the regret itself are empty, and therefore not real, the knots of attachment in our hearts are undone, and the regret will dissolve. Like this the heart forms a wall, nothing can touch it. This is the special characteristic of the Heart of Chan.
For ordinary people like us who do not have this level of wisdom yet, a more important question is how not to create even more regret. It is a very difficult thing to do. To do this we must grasp hold of the three activities of our body, speech and mind, to bring our lives in accordance with the Dharma and our vows. We also have to fulfill all the various responsibilities, duties and obligations we bear to the best of our abilities, and cherish and make ample use of all the varieties of precious karmic opportunities we possess. If we do not we will simply continue to fill our hearts with regret. I have many good memories from my college days, but I also feel that I wasted a lot of time. My university had a great library, but I did not read many books. I did not value and make use of that precious karmic opportunity. I regret that. Today we have many valuable, karmically created opportunities: we can study Buddhism, we have a human body, we have happened to meet with the Buddha-dharma, we have a good place to practice, we can hear teachings on the Dharma, and have encountered the sutras and met qualified teachers. If we don’t make ample use of these opportunities, we will keep adding to our regret.
To stop creating more regret, we also need to cherish every day of our lives. You should cherish every karmically created opportunity you have. You should be very committed to being kind to every person you encounter and not causing them harm. Every person you encounter in your life - your teacher, parents, wife or husband, students – do you earnestly care for them? If not, then waste no time and start to do so right now. We also need to diligently perform whatever role it is we have in life. If you are not diligent, then afterwards you will regret it. If you always miss the opportunities presented to you, then you will continuously add to your regret; your burden will be greater and greater, and the longer you live the more weary you will become.
Freedom from Resentment
Resentment is all-encompassing. It includes how others treat us, how society treats us, illness, unexpected accidents, even the weather. We can also resent those aspects of our body over which we have no control, and situations brought about by that fact. Freedom from resentment, simply put, means to not resent any of the people, circumstances or things we encounter while travelling down this road of life, but to positively confront it all with gratitude. Positively confronting difficulties with a gracious heart does not refer to an affected attitude, but one arisen from an intuitive perception of the nature of dependent origination. What is dependent origination? Everything in our lives is dependently arisen. We can say that every unavoidable event that comes crashing down on our heads is dependently arisen, in that we are responsible for those events having the ability to come into being in the first place. They belong to us, we created them. Accept them, face them, do not reject them. If you end up with a very ill-tempered husband or wife, it is dependently arisen, the causes lie with you. Another example would be our being born onto this whirling planet Earth. Our planet is not peaceful right now. There are often wars, frightening things happen, and the environment is getting worse and worse. So we need to know that to be born in this world, in this country, in this age, definitely has its karmic causes. And the causes for all of this lie with us. Looking at the wars on the planet, and then looking in our hearts, we will immediately know that the wars were originally raging in our hearts, and have just been projected outwards. Our hearts have hatred and wrath. We reject others and see everything that is “ours” or related to us as the most important, so we are born into a place with war. If our hearts are completely free of hatred and malice, and we do not see ourselves as the center of everything, then we will be born in a harmonious environment, in a peaceful age, on a peaceful planet. We may even be born in a heaven realm or in Amitabha’s Pure Land.
The most difficult people to feel gratitude towards are those we do not get along with, people who make trouble for us and stab us in the back. Actually, these kinds of people help us by pointing out our faults to us. They help to supervise our behavior. We ought to thank them for all the hard work. If a person, like a troublesome coworker, is always watching you, finding all your faults and telling you about them year in and year out, I suggest you give him a salary because that requires a lot of patience! If you wanted to purposefully invite someone to do the same kind of work, he would be very difficult to find. But in our lives we often encounter people like this. If we maintained a relationship like this for a long time, it would foster our long-term diligence in living up to the standards we are supposed to have as Buddhists. Someone who hangs in there for the long-term, and who always holds you up to your self-professed standards without easing up even for a minute, if his long-term commitment is greater than yours is, you definitely should befriend him! Someone like that is truly amazing, is truly a friend!
So use this heart, free from resentment, as your basis for living. Face everything with a grateful heart, whatever you are dealing with. See difficulties as our teachers. They are like Chan Masters Deshan or Linji giving our heads a whack with a stick, forcing us to improve, pushing us towards enlightenment. Next time you encounter a troublesome person or an annoying situation, think of it this way, “Oh, this is Chan Master Deshan, or Chan Master Linji, coming to train me. It is a teacher helping me to cultivate my patience and ability to transform hardship.” Or we could see this person or situation as someone helping us to cultivate patience. The Perfection of Patience is one of the Six Perfections we need to cultivate on the Buddhist path, after all. If you are able to see things this way, many kinds of people, environments or situations can become your teachers. What is even better is you do not even have to pay any tuition!
The Sanskrit word “Buddha” means “Enlightened One.” The word “enlightened” embodies three different aspects: Self-enlightenment, the Enlightenment of Others and Perfect Enlightenment.
Self-enlightenment means one has realized that the wholesome and the unwholesome, and pleasure and pain are all created by the functioning of cause and effect. If we are able to clearly understand and completely realize this truth, it will enable us to resolve the Four Marks (birth, aging, sickness, death). This means one is enlightened.
The Enlightenment of Others means that every sentient being, whether it was born from a fetus, egg, moisture or transformation, whether it flies in the air or squirms in the ground, has Buddha-nature. It is only because they are not yet enlightened that the Ancients called these beings “lost.” We should respect and love ourselves in line with the Buddha’s principle of mercifully delivering all beings from suffering We should use our knowledge of the truth to teach others, and rescue all the living beings mired in the sea of suffering. If we come to truly realize these words spoken in the Surangama Sutra, “All men are my father, all women are my mother,” we will naturally develop feelings of respect and love in our innermost heart towards others, especially towards widows, widowers, orphans and the childless - those without anyone to support or help them. We will be able to treat them with even greater respect and tender affection. By helping these suffering beings through donations and compassionate action, we can bring them to enlightenment. Only in this way, can we finally attain our goal of equanimity and impartiality to all beings.
A Perfectly Enlightened One refers to someone who has taken the Buddhist precepts as his or her practice, even all the way to the highest summit of consummate enlightenment. After the Buddha entered Nirvana, he left behind the Sutras, the Vinaya and the Commentaries, the Three Baskets. These act as our raft to cross over the ocean of pain and sorrow, so we should conscientiously follow all the instructions and vows found therein. When we have practiced them all the way to complete fulfillment, then that is called Perfect Enlightenment. So, the Buddha is Enlightened, normal beings are lost. Lost or enlightened is the only difference between normal beings and a Buddha. Leaving behind confusion for enlightenment, leaving behind deluded thoughts for one’s original nature, this is the meaning of enlightenment, and this is the meaning of Buddha.
I'm not going to bother writing anything about Empty Cloud himself. There is a lot available online about his life. Here is a brief biography by Charles Luk. This is only a page from I pulled up from a search. I am not associated with the people or group responsible for the site.
Monday, December 8, 2008
Knowing When To Stop
“Knowing when to stop” means knowing our limits or boundaries. When we walk down the road, we know where the sidewalk ends and the road begins, and if we exceed this boundary we will end up on the road, or in the gutter. The boundary is very clear. We cannot walk off too far to the right or left. We can also say that, here “to stop” also means a standard. Every thing, person or action has its own boundaries or standards. Some of these limits or standards are normal, other are special. For example, laymen and women have their standards, while monks and nuns have their own; a teacher has his or her own special professional boundaries, as does a government official.
If we look back to the time before we began studying Buddhism, we may discover that our lives were rather confused. In regards to which things were and were not acceptable to do, our hearts were confused. At least, this was true in my case. Before I met the Dharma, my own heart had no guide, no boundaries. My life resembled a car driving down a road that was not clearly demarcated, sometimes drifting far off in one direction, and at other times far off in the other. However, if we want to practice Buddhism, we cannot continue to live this way. The first step is to know what are the fundamental, acceptable standards of behavior for a disciple of the Buddha. In Buddhism, these standards of behavior fall under the category of ethics, which includes receiving vows. We do not want to wait until after having received the vows to know what they mean. Before we receive the vows, we need to understand them. Having acquired a human birth was dependent on our practice of ethics in past lives. So now that we have obtained a human birth, we are in possession of many precious things that we need to hold on to. These things are the freedoms and privileges of having a human life that beings who have taken rebirth in other realms do not have, such as being able to meet with and practice the Dharma, as well as the material conditions necessary for even that to be possible. So there are some fundamental standards that are necessary to abide by to fully make use of this life, and to attain another human birth.
In Buddhism, Shakyamuni Buddha gave his lay disciples five basic guidelines for what is acceptable behavior. These guidelines we call the “Five Disciplines.” The first is to not kill, the second to not steal, the third to not be licentious, the fourth is to not lie and the fifth is to not drink alcohol. If we are very clear in our minds about these five vows, we can then keep close watch on ourselves and our behavior, thus creating less suffering and more happiness for ourselves and others. If we find that we are unable to keep one particular vow for a short period of time, for example abstaining from alcohol, then we can at least demand of ourselves that we keep the other four.
The first vow is to not kill. Not killing means to not cause harm to another’s body, whether human, animal or insect, to not cut off that existence. Under ordinary circumstances, we would never take the life of another human, but we may think little of harming animals or insects. If we do not have a clear, well defined awareness, if we have no self-restraint, do not know when to stop, have no boundaries, no clear understanding of the relationship between humans and other living beings, then being led by our ignorance and delusion we will often perform acts that cause great harm to the lives of other beings. It says in the Buddhist teachings that causing harm to other sentient beings’ lives will have very severe consequences for us. Everything we do rebounds back onto us. Whatever it is we have sent out is exactly what we will receive. It is wrong to think that everything we do, say or think has no relationship to us once the deed is done. We have to take responsibility for all the things we do.
The result of taking someone’s life will be related in some way to our own well-being. Worst-case scenario, it will be something directly connected to life or death. Something of smaller magnitude would be related to our health or lifespan. The karmic causes of any threat to our safety, existence, or life and death are all related to killing. It is easy for those who like to kill to be reborn in a time of war, in a nation that is at war, or to easily encounter war. Generally speaking, people who often take life are easily sick, have a shorter lifespan and lack a sense of safety. They lack a sense of safety because they deprive others of it. They also have few friends because they have harmed other sentient beings. Because they are already used to harming others, humans or animals will, of course, be afraid of them. So these peoples’ friends will be fewer and fewer. If they have friends, they will attract other people who also like to take life. The remaining vows are the same. People who like to steal will encounter many people who also enjoy stealing. People who are unscrupulous in their relations with the opposite sex will run into others who promote degenerate environments and behavior. Those who like to drink will always have many friends who like to drink.
The second vow is to not steal. Not stealing concerns others’ property. Of course, most of us would never pry open someone’s door and break into his home. But the meaning of “not stealing” in Buddhism is much more wide-ranging. Since certain items like clothing, food and money are used for maintaining life, so stealing others’ property is also related to and influences others’ existence, like killing. Besides something obvious like breaking and entering, this vow also refers to our duties and responsibilities at work. If we are in a position of authority, and we appropriate something that does not belong to us, and the other party does not agree, regardless of the circumstances it is also considered stealing. Making an unauthorized phone call on the company phone, taking a piece of notepaper, using a public vehicle for private use, all belong to the category of “theft.”
If we do a good job living by these vows, our disposition and behavior will slowly change, keeping the vows will become easier and easier, and others will notice the change in our character. Those who keep this vow of not stealing give others a special feeling of trust. If you maintain this vow, then the people you do business with will feel at ease. When they negotiate with you, they will not worry about being cheated, and when the two of you reach an agreement, the other party will not care if you have signed a contract. They will feel that you definitely do not harbor any ill intentions. The vow has this kind of influential power.
Not stealing has even more subtle implications. For example, besides personal property, there are also abstract things that can be stolen. We now live in an information age, and what counts as theft is not always about personal property. Stealing a piece of information, like passwords from a website, is also stealing. Another kind of theft, one not of knowledge or physical property, is taking credit for something you did not do, like plagiarism, or even making fake brand name products. Faking a brand is actually very serious. A brand name can actually be an international economic interest, a source of all kinds of wealth. The name itself is being stolen in order to steal the profit. Perhaps in the past this was not a big problem, but I think that this particular kind of theft is rather widespread right now.
The third vow is to not be licentious. This means that the relationships between men and women in the home of a Buddhist, specifically with one’s own partner, operate within what is permitted by the limits of the law and ethics. The breaking of this vow not only affects the people directly involved in the act, but also the children, the families and society. The harm created by the breaking of this vow radiates outward in an all-encompassing manner. Children who grow up in troubled or broken homes usually have many problems when they are older. Children are very impressionable, and one that is not given sufficient love, or shown sufficient concern, grows up filled with hatred and dissatisfaction towards society and life. Of course, this is not an absolute, but it is certainly true for the vast majority. If someone has accumulated a lot of good karma from past lives, then, although when young they did not receive much care or love, after growing up they are still able to love others. There are some people like this. However, the overwhelming majority of people will give back to society whatever kind of treatment they received from others while young, whether it was love and care, or anger and abuse, but multiplied.
Sometimes I think it is truly sad that today’s society has so many means of communication. Most of the things promoted by the mass media seem aimed at encouraging people to act in an unrestrained manner. The media plays upon people’s emotions, and the example it provides for relationships is one without standards. It tells us to be careless, and to do whatever it is we feel like doing without consideration for the consequences of our actions. We are seduced and drawn in this direction, it is very dangerous. Science and technology are flourishing right now, it is so easy and convenient to communicate and spread ideas. While all of these technologies bring us certain material benefits, it is also very easy for us to use them to negative ends. What is especially strange is that now we often hear of “internet romances,” relationships that develop over the internet and result in two people who already have commitments running off together. I have heard that the results of these “internet romances” are usually pitiful because those who meet on the internet do not truly know each other. These kinds of strange events are all a sign of a society not knowing when to stop, a society without limits or boundaries.
Licentiousness, this kind of negative behavior, is not something that happens suddenly, out of the blue. It is the result of many causes, and is usually foreshadowed. So in our daily lives, as Buddhist lay practitioners, how are we to avoid these problems? Of course, we first need to know that, in terms of our behavior, some lines are not to be crossed. Additionally, we should take many different aspects into account when building a relationship, not only money or attraction. Some couple’s relationships have already been ruptured; they have already drifted apart, and are very cold and distant to each other. There is a barrier that neither side wants to acknowledge. They avoid it, feign ignorance, and the gulf between them slowly widens, and their relationship easily worsens. Sometimes people seem very complicated, but actually they are very simple, there is usually just a simple explanation like this one.
The fourth vow is to not lie. The main point is to not cheat others. For a practitioner of Buddhism, within his or her own boundaries of practice, one just needs to maintain honesty.
The fifth vow is to not drink alcohol. Alcohol damages our reason. Drunken peoples’ characters are utterly ruined by alcohol. One whose reason has been damaged will do all kinds of foolish things, like killing, stealing, being sexually irresponsible and cheating others. The vow of abstaining from alcohol also includes taking narcotics. Furthermore, in addition to physically addictive substances, there are also psychologically addictive things. Some kinds of writing, movies and television programs are psychologically addictive. We need to stay clear of these things because they make us unable to pay attention to reality, or exert ourselves. We lose touch with reality under their influence, and they damage our intellect.
“Knowing when is enough” refers to our material possessions. This point might seem to be out of step with this day and age, as we now live in a market economy. But what does a market economy depend upon? It depends on the continued swelling of our desires. A market economy hopes that after we drink one can of cola, we drink another one, and the next time we drink three, then eight cans; only then will businesses be happy.
Here, what I mean by “knowing when is enough” is a kind of contentment in regard to acquiring things. When we are offering gifts and practicing generosity, we do not want to think this way. However, when we are receiving gifts, or demanding or acquiring things, we need to know when we have enough. The contentment of “knowing when is enough” expresses that we value or cherish the things we have. If we do not cherish all the things we possess, they are not worth a cent. Only by truly valuing something will its real worth be considered. If we do not cherish the things we possess, then today this piece of clothing is my favorite, but tomorrow it is another, and yesterday’s favorite piece of clothing, or book, or CD is forgotten. Sometimes, if there is something we have used for a long time, it becomes an indispensible part of our lives. We really cherish it. It becomes like a friend. However, without contentment we will be fickle and capricious, indifferent towards things, and always abandoning our old friends and looking for new ones. “Knowing when is enough,” being contented, nourishes our spiritual life. It allows us to experience a kind of happiness. This happiness is not the same as that derived from an extravagant lifestyle. Happiness derived from extravagance is very tiring. It makes us want to run about wildly, continuously seeking more and more. But by cherishing all the things that we have, as well as the resources at our disposal, our spiritual life is enriched, and a special significance is brought to all the things we possess.
Of course, wealthy people have their own happiness. I have no personal experience of that kind of happiness. I imagine the happiness of riches is to be able to go out and do whatever it is your heart desires: whatever you want to buy, you buy; wherever you want to go, you go. However, I think that this kind of life demonstrates a lack of appreciation of the abundant material goods one is so fortunate to have. Do we cherish the soil on the Earth? No, we do not, because we can go and grab a hand full of it anytime we please. When one has wealth, and is able to just do whatever one wants to do, whenever one feels like it, I reckon one may also be happy, but it cannot last long. That kind of happiness does not bring a sense of safety to the heart. The happiness of the poor is real happiness. Do you know why? For example, if you only have a few dollars, and you use it to by a sandwich and a soda, when you eat that sandwich and drink that soda, you will be extremely thankful and appreciative. This is a totally different attitude from that of the rich. There is joy in this, the joy of the poor. If we are poor, we will always find many kinds of clever ways of getting the most out of the things we own, we will not carelessly discard things. Even if it is just a simple tin can, we will find a use for it, like a pencil holder, or flower vase.
“Knowing when is enough” implies not consuming the whole of our lives in the pursuit of material things. Of course, I am not advocating poverty as a way of life, but only to cherish all the things we have. I am not saying that we should give away all our wealth to others and live in poverty. I am only saying that, in regards to the things we already have, we treasure them. We usually tend to think that we really do not have many possessions. We rarely think that we already have enough. So, another meaning of “knowing when is enough” is to recognize that what we already have is sufficient. We need to maintain an awareness and balanced knowledge of this truth.
The life of a Buddhist monk, if lived according to Shakyamuni’s requirements, is extremely simple. This kind of unadorned life has its own special flavor. If you look at pictures of the great monk Empty Cloud when he was older, you will see his outer robe was covered in patches, patches upon patches. It is said that when he went to Beijing to attend the Asian Pacific Peace Conference, because he would see many foreign monks of high status as well as foreign diplomats, the Chinese government hoped that Empty Cloud would change his clothes and wear better-looking robes. But he did not wear the nice robes given him. When he arrived he was still wearing the same old patchwork robes. Some of the officials were very upset. But Empty Cloud was a true practitioner; he did not pay any attention to such vain concerns. He was content with what he had. It was sufficient.
Knowing One’s Refuge
Besides needing to eat, clothe ourselves, marry, start a family and raise children, human life has one other extremely important issue. In Buddhism, this problem is called “The Great Problem of Birth and Death.” Where does our human life come from? Where do we go when we die? Ultimately, what is the meaning of life? Most of us, from our birth to our death, resemble a leaf blown about by the wind: sometimes it is blown onto a roof, sometimes blown into a gutter. We live this passive sort of existence, and are unable to find the calm and quiet necessary to reflect on the meaning of life, or to question what its actual value is.
Belief is a universal human need, but there are, of course, some who have not awakened to it yet. “Knowing one’s refuge,” according to Buddhism, is to know one’s place of refuge. By knowing our place of refuge, our hearts have a spiritual home and a spiritual support. With a refuge, we have a standard of judgment towards all the things in our life. We are able to make informed decisions and choices. We will also we have more power and confidence when confronting all the various circumstances encountered in our human lives.
Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is the first step to becoming a disciple of the Buddha. The ceremony of taking refuge indicates that we already understand that the Three Jewels, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, are things we can truly rely on. So now we have passed through the ceremony, and have accepted the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha into our heart. Perhaps, before having done this, we resembled that leaf carried about by the wind, but after we have the Three Refuges we resemble a mighty tree with deeps roots, firm and stable even during a storm. The comfort we derive from having a refuge is similar to the comfort felt from the knowledge of having a home to return to. The hearts of Buddhists that have already taken refuge and entered the door of Buddhist practice are usually very peaceful and serene. Their hearts are very quiet, and so their lives are correspondingly stable. The happiness that comes from having a refuge, and faith, is different from the happiness of material comforts and that derived from the physical senses. Spiritual happiness comes from the depths of our hearts. It does not rely on the external conditions and material things. Spiritual happiness resembles a mountain spring, steadily flowing outward from the deep places in our hearts. Regardless of how society changes, no matter what our world is like, the faith in our hearts continuously supports us, continuously furnishes us with joy.
Only people who have found their place of refuge have power, are able to help other sentient beings, and be of benefit to them. People without a place of refuge are just homeless wanderers. Before we have found our true refuge, oftentimes our wish to help others remains just that, a wish. When trying to help, we discover that we usually go astray and in the end do not bring any real benefit to the person. Helping and benefiting others is, in fact, not a simple thing. It requires wisdom to be done properly. Without wisdom, not only will we be unable to offer any real kind of help, but we will just cause more problems. Mr. Yangxun, a wealthy philanthropist and Buddhist layman from Hong Kong, said, “We who want to study Buddhism first need to learn how not to cause trouble for others. Second, we need to help others lessen the difficulties they face in their lives, as well as use our abilities to help society and those near us have fewer problems. That is the practice of a Bodhisattva.”
When the Patriarchs trained their students, they generally expected them to resolve more than 300 gong’an, the reason being that the content or crucial point of every gong’an is different, as is the effect. So Chan after the Tang and Song Dynasties was called “Gong’an Chan.” In “Gong’an Chan” you resolve the Patriarchs’ gong’an one by one to attain enlightenment. If you were able to do this, then it could be said that you had penetrated the Three Barriers, and brought birth and death to an end.
The gong’an has three principle functions. For someone who has already attained enlightenment, taking up a gong’an only serves to verify his or her state of enlightenment. To investigate whether the person’s realizations are right or wrong, deep or shallow, or correct or mistaken, is the first function of a gong’an. The second function is to act as a guide or catalyst for someone on the point of attaining enlightenment. The meditation of a person close to enlightenment is like a chick ready to break out of its egg. So by giving the student a gong’an, the teacher is helping the student to break through the egg of ignorance faster and more smoothly. For practitioners at this stage, the purpose of the gong’an is to cause them to realize their true nature even faster. The third function of the gong’an is for those whose enlightenment awaits them in the more distant future, to make the students more energetic and hardworking. For a student like this, the teacher will often give him a gong’an, and not allow him to put it down, pushing him to practice with it uninterruptedly day and night. This will enable him to deeply understand the suffering of birth and death, give rise to bodhicitta and enter the teacher’s snare. Finally, the teacher brings about a thorough transformation in his student’s thinking, and the student attains enlightenment in the present moment. While practicing with the gong’an, the teacher may lay many traps in order to guide the student, allowing the student to penetrate them one by one. These traps are only a kind of skillful means, as is the gong’an. The gong’an is only a stepping-stone, a finger pointing to the moon. When you realize the true nature of reality, both the stone and the finger need to be set down.
The Wu Gong’an
A person once asked the great monk Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” Zhaozhou replied, with much certainty, “No (Wu)!” Zhaozhou was a qualified teacher who had passed through the Three Barriers. People called him “The Ancient Buddha Zhaozhou.” His knowledge of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism is beyond question. He knew that the Buddha said all sentient beings possess Buddha-nature, so why did he say dogs do not? There is, in fact, no cause for alarm in Master Zhaozhou’s resolute and definitive answer of “No!” For the past 1,000 years, this “No!” or “Wu!” has drawn countless Chan practitioners to investigate it, thereby turning it into the highest method of attaining enlightenment: The Gateless Barrier.
Zhaozhou’s “Wu!” was originally a special teaching given at a specific time, and to a specific student, because of that student’s spiritual capacity. This was the method used by the ancient Buddhas, and in Chan we call it “the sword that kills, and the knife that gives life.” This wu is extremely important, and is directly related to the achievement of the fruits of meditation practice, so successive generations of past Chan practitioners have held it up as a model.
What is “the sword that kills, and the knife that gives life?” “The sword that kills” is the thing that thoroughly kills our delusions; it cleanses us of our kleśa. “The knife that gives life” is the thing that rescues the fruits of our practice from the midst of these kleśa. For the last 1,000 years, meditators within and outside of China have used this wu to rid themselves of delusion, realize their true nature, and achieve the final goal of Buddhist practice. Even now, there are still many Chan practitioners meditating on this wu.
If you look at the actual character wu for understanding, or rely on your conceptual mind to find an answer, you will never touch on the true meaning. It is like scratching another person’s foot when your foot itches; you will never get the itching to stop. When a meditator is inquiring into wu, it leads all his or her conceptualizing and deluded mental discrimination to a dead end. At that time, it is like standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking a bottomless chasm, and suddenly someone pushes you. If you do not have this state of mind, but wish to attain enlightenment, it is impossible.
Speaking this way makes Zhaozhou sound extremely ruthless, right? Would not pushing people off a cliff into a bottomless chasm cause them to lose their lives? Of course, we should not take “losing your life” and “bottomless chasm” literally. It means to push our conceptual thinking into an impasse or dead end, to be unable to go forward or backward. Only then might our thinking undergo a complete transformation, and we find the seed of our Buddha-nature. Only then will the “bottom of the barrel fall out,” and we come to complete realization. Zhaozhou’s wu gong’an has been highly valued by Chan practitioners of the last 1,000 years, and it was not by chance.
For those of us today who want to practice with wu, who are placing our hopes of enlightenment on it, how do we practice with it? The Patriarchs spoke at length about this question; in fact, it would fill endless books. But it ultimately comes down to doubting wu with every fiber of our being. This is the “doubt” oftentimes referred to in gong’an practice. Please remember that cultivating this doubt does not mean to conceptualize discursively over this wu. Also, do not mistake this wu as meaning “to have,” or “not to have,” or to mean “nothingness.” It transcends the duality of having or not having.
So how are we to understand this wu? We need to integrate this wu into our life, fuse it and our life into a single, undivided whole, until our life is the wu and wu is our life. We need to doubt in this way. To what degree do we want to cultivate this doubt? There is an analogy that describes it this way: someone is deep-frying glutinous rice cakes on a street corner, and a dog passes by and bites into one of them. These kinds of cakes are very sticky, and this one is burning hot because it just came out of the frying pan. However, the dog cannot swallow it and cannot spit it out because the cake is stuck to its teeth. In this time between swallowing and spitting it out, what would the dog’s state of mind be? When you meditate on wu, and give rise to doubt, you need to be as motivated as this dog trying to spit out the rice cake. It is like having a red hot metal ball in your mouth. What would that feel like? Have we given rise to a degree of doubt equal to this? If you have, you can say you doubt with every fiber of your being. “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” Doubt with every bit of your strength you can muster, and besides doubting, do not give rise to a single thought. This is the way to practice.
The Origin of the gong’an
In ancient China, a gong’an originally referred to a legal case. When a doctor gave a patient a prescription, it was also called a gong’an. After a doctor treated one patient, the doctor would often take some notes. While treating another patient, he might reference these notes to draw from his experience in treating patient A to treat patient B. According to the similarities or differences in the two illnesses, the doctor would make a suitable prescription, or gong’an. In Chan, the gong’an functions in a similar way. The Chan master, according to the particular situation of the student, consults the process and result of the ancient patriarchs’ enlightenment. The teacher uses the realizations brought about by past meditators in order to give guidance to the current student’s practice.
Actually, when Chan was beginning to develop, there was no gong’an practice. It was only afterwards, when people’s natural capacity for practice began to worsen, that there was no alternative but to use the investigation of the gong’an to reach the goal of seeing one’s true nature. The “Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch” said it very clearly: “directly pointing to the heart, seeing one’s original nature and becoming a Buddha.” The method of seeing one’s original nature is a direct pointing. What is “direct pointing”? For example, someone asked the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng, “What is Buddha?” and the Patriarch replied, “The person asking is the Buddha.” The inquirer is Buddha. If the person asking has the spiritual capacity, the wisdom, if the karmic conditions have ripened, then upon hearing the Patriarch’s direct answer, he will immediately attain enlightenment. By means of the Patriarch’s “direct pointing,” timed to coincide with exactly the right time, and specifically geared for his or her capacity, the student can immediately attain enlightenment. And after the sudden realization, the student continues to practice. This is what we usually call “sudden enlightenment, gradual practice.”
This is somewhat different from practicing with a gong’an. If our spiritual capacity is of poor quality, and we are not able to attain immediate enlightenment, then before reaching enlightenment we will need to investigate the gong’an for a long time. Enlightenment itself is an event that takes place in a split second. However, the process of preparing for it is a very long one; therefore, it is called “gradual enlightenment.” After attaining “gradual enlightenment,” we have not necessarily finished our work. We need to continue practicing. The process is usually referred to as “gradual enlightenment, gradual practice.” The practice after reaching this stage of enlightenment is finally genuine practice. The practice one does before attaining this state is only a stage of exploration. It belongs to “blind practice” because it lacks insight and understanding. Watching the huatou, or the “head of the thought,” and giving rise to doubt is part of blind practice.
The Ancients said, “Big doubt, big enlightenment; small doubt, small enlightenment; no doubt, no enlightenment.” The kind of doubt we are trying to bring up is actually a doubt about one’s own life, and all its confusing circumstances. It is not doubt about the Dharma, but, in fact, comes after having full confidence and faith in the Dharma. Who am I? Where did I come from? Where will I go? Why is there birth and death? Others have reached enlightenment, why cannot I? The doubt comes in the form of questions like this that arise from deeply contemplating the truths of life. However, the doubt we are trying to produce is not only a question-by-question, minute examination of life’s mysteries. Although some people do use this approach, those people must have good spiritual capacities and deep inborn wisdom. If normal people use this kind of method, it will easily give rise to discursive, deluded thinking. They will not be able to enter a calm meditative state because the factor of vipaśyanā is prominent over the factor of śamatha. Doing this kind of practice without a strong foundation in śamatha easily leads to a scattered mind. To give rise to doubt definitely needs a foundation in śamatha, otherwise one will not be able to meditate, let alone attain enlightenment.
The great Chan Master Empty Cloud said, after bringing up this doubt, to reflect upon it carefully, to fix it in our minds and not allow it to sneak off. This approach is in fact a Chan method, and is a Buddhist technique as well. When meditating on the wu gong’an, we want to give rise to doubt regarding this wu, fix it in our minds and carefully reflection upon it. How do we carefully reflect? It is just like the words in the Heart Sutra: “When practicing the profound Perfection of Wisdom, Guanyin Bodhisattva observed the Five Aggregates to be empty.” Afterward, “Therefore, in the realization of emptiness there are no form, no feeling, perception, volition or consciousness. No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; no form, sound, smell, taste, touch or mind object; no realm of the eye, until we come to no realm of consciousness. No ignorance and also no ending of ignorance, until we come to no old age and death and do ending of old age and death. Also, there is no Truth of Suffering, of the Cause of Suffering, of the Cessation of Suffering, nor of the Path. There is no wisdom, and there is no attainment whatsoever.”
It is just like this. If one continues practicing with wu, all dualism is at last dissolved, which is to say that emptiness is realized. In our practice, we need to rest in this state of emptiness at all times, to maintain it. Once we are well practiced in this, enlightenment will be within our grasp.
So, practicing with the wu gong’an is to reflect carefully on emptiness, to observe our originally empty nature. The Ancients said not to mistake this wu as meaning “to have or not to have.” We also do not want to mistakenly think it refers to “nothingness.” It does not mean an absence of all things. Actually, it is a great unification, a great consummation and ultimately nirvana. We need to observe this wu until our thoughts are one with it, and there is no dualistic concept of a self, until this duality-lacking wu becomes a unified whole with our being. Once your practice has reached a high level, you will know the power of this wu. Everyone definitely needs to trust this, to bring up this doubt. If you do not trust, there will be no doubt. If there is no doubt, then your meditation will go nowhere.
Thanks must first be given to Venerables Jinghui and Minghai for allowing me to translate their teachings.
A special expression of gratitude must be given to Cecily, who is acting as my copy editor, and helping me get my translations into readable condition.
Thanks must also be given to the following people: my mother, for helping me to study Chinese language; Bill Porter, for translation advice and encouragement; He Shanmeng, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, for helping with translation questions; Charles Muller for use of his Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, which has been referenced extensively during the translation process; Ven. Huifeng, yet another person who must be thanked for translation help; and whoever else I may have overlooked, but has supported or encouraged me in various ways throughout the last several years on my path!
Unless otherwise noted, the photography used on this blog is the work of Zhangwang, a noted Chinese photographer who specializes in Buddhist photography. He has kindly allowed me to use his work on this blog. 多謝! All rights to his photography are possessed by him.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
The translations posted on this website will primarily consist of the teachings of Ven. Jinghui, a disciple of the renowned Chan master Empty Cloud, and Ven. Jinghui's disciple Ven. Minghai. Both are extremely active in the rebuilding and spreading of the Buddha-dharma within Mainland China, and I think that their approach to Chan Buddhism will appeal greatly to Westerners. I was planning to also translate teachings of Empty Cloud, and perhaps I will, but rumor has it that a Ph. D. student is working on a translation of the complete teachings of Empty Cloud. If this translation comes about, my time would be better spent working on teachings that have not yet been translated into English. There may also be copyright issues to consider, so for the time being I'm going to focus on the teachings of Venerables Jinghui and Minghai.