Spring 1997


The Heart Sutra  Commentary by Master Sheng-yen
Memoir of a Monk's Journey to Thailand (part 2)  by Guo-yuan Fa Shi
Poem  by Lindley Hanlon 
Lin-chi Ch'an and the Use of Kung-an and Hua-t'ou  by Prof. Dan Stevenson
Song of Mind of Niu-t'ou Fa-jung Commentary by Master Sheng-yen

The Heart Sutra 
Commentary by Master Sheng-yen 

The fourteenth and last lecture in a series delivered by Shih-fu to students attending a special class at the Ch'an Center. 

In this lecture we will come to the end of the Heart Sutra. The next line of the Heart Sutra reads, "They [Bodhisattvas] reach ultimate nirvana." There are three kinds of nirvana, two of which are not ultimate nirvana. The first is the nirvana of the outer paths. The second is the nirvana of arhats whose goal of practice was self-liberation. The third -- ultimate nirvana -- is that of the Mahayana path.

There is no specific outer-path nirvana. Generally, outer-path practitioners mistake unity of self with a god as ultimate nirvana. They may believe it is the ultimate state and that they will no longer have vexations or continue on the wheel of samsara. This is considered the nirvana of the outer path.

God, in this case, may represent one of two things. One refers to that condition when a practitioner feels unified with a personal, anthropomorphic god. The other refers to the condition when a practitioner feels unified with everything, the highest, the ultimate. It can be called pantheism. Such a practitioner feels he or she has returned to that purest or highest of states, a kind of universal embodiment. It can also be called the Godhead.

People who have experienced returning to a personal god feel reborn in heaven. Those who have returned to the Godhead feel they have disappeared or merged with the universe. Most people would consider either of these experiences as liberation or nirvana.

Outer-path nirvana can be attained by one of two methods. The first is by invoking and receiving the help or grace of a deity. This method would work for attaining unity with a personal god. Actually, one does not merge with a god; rather, one lives in the presence or light of that god. Also, this method would not work for unifying with the Godhead. To attain that kind of outer-path nirvana, one must practice. Practice includes cultivating merit and virtue by following the precepts as well as cultivating samadhi power.

The reason why the first kind of nirvana is considered outer path is because being reborn in or brought to a heaven is not considered eternal from a Buddhist viewpoint. It is only a temporary condition. Further, it is questionable whether the god has even transcended samsara. The second kind of nirvana is similar to the experience of dissolving into nature or expanding to a large self. Such an experience will also not last because the power of samadhi and the power derived from merit and virtue will wane.

Practitioners who practice for self-liberation and who have attained arhatship are liberated from all vexations. They no longer create the causes that bring vexation. Hence, they no longer create the cause to be reborn or remain in samsara. They are truly free from vexations and samsara. But what about the causes they have created in the past before attaining liberation? Retribution as such only comes to those who still have self-attachment. People with attachment definitely receive karmic retribution for past actions. Those without self-attachment also must undergo the karmic consequences of their past actions, but because they have no attachment to self, they do not see it as retribution. Therefore, those who attain arhatship and trans-cend self-attachment do not feel the retribution for previous actions, whether they be good, bad, or neutral. It does not matter what they did. Also, from the Mahayana perspective, those who attain arhatship may convert over to the Mahayana path. In that case, they will reappear in the world to help sentient beings. In returning to help others, bodhisattvas pay back previous debts owed to others.

The third nirvana is that of the Mahayana path and is the goal of bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas attain the goal without fear, confusion, or imaginings. Bodhisattvas have no attachment to life or the world. On the other hand, they choose to remain in the world to help others, unlike Hinayana arhats. To bodhisattvas, samsara is the Pure Land. Bodhisattvas still function in samsara and are not separate from the world of ordinary sentient beings, but they do not have the vexations that ordinary sentient beings have. Bodhisattvas remain in samsara, but their mental states are the same as that of arhats.

How do we contemplate ultimate nirvana? In daily life, we must understand that avoiding situations which may cause vexations is not appropriate. Running away is not good. Neither is denial or pretending that the situation does not exist. It is best to accept the situation without vexations in mind and to deal with situations without being disturbed. Of course this is difficult to do. But even though we are nowhere near attaining ultimate nirvana, we can still learn from and emulate the Buddha. We can try to adopt the ways and attitudes of a Buddha.

The Heart Sutra continues: "All past, present and future Buddhas, relying on prajnaparamita, attain anuttara-samyak-sambodhi." 'Past Buddhas' refers to all sentient beings who have become Buddhas in all worlds. 'Present Buddhas' refers to all the Buddhas that are around now in the innumerable worlds. In Buddhism, we call this the ten directions. 'Future Buddhas' includes all bodhisattvas, and in fact, all sentient beings.

The next line recaps the beginning of the sutra. There is no need to re-explain prajnaparamita. When you finally transcend attachment to self, that is wisdom without outflows. In the beginning of the sutra, it was a bodhisattva, namely Avalokitesvara, who was relying on prajnaparamita. Now, at the end of the sutra, we are referring to Buddhas.

Avalokitesvara is a great bodhisattva. It is very difficult for ordinary sentient beings to compare great bodhisattvas and Buddhas. One distinction, however, is that bodhisattvas have not attained ultimate nirvana.

Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi is a Sanskrit term. Anuttara means "highest." Samyak means "perfect." Sambodhi refers to perfect, complete, all-pervasive realization. It is the realization of Buddhas.

"Therefore know that prajnaparamita is the great mantra of power, the great mantra of wisdom, the supreme mantra, the unequaled mantra, which removes all sufferings. It is real and not false." These lines are straightforward. The sutra is emphasizing that prajna has the power of delivering sentient beings. Mantras are thought to have great power, and so prajna is described in this manner. Mantras are believed to be able to hold everything and not allow anything to leak out. Therefore, this particular mantra holds great wisdom, powerful enough to remove all sufferings.

"Therefore, recite the mantra of prajnaparamita. Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha." Actually, these last two lines are not found in the original sutra. Also, the last line is not a mantra, even though it is in the form of a mantra. True mantras, which originated in India, are composed of sounds which are the seeds of words; and although mantras can have meanings, they are not specific. The meanings are usually rich and varied. Also, mantras are usually not translatable. The sounds in this mantra are true words which have specific meanings. They are left untranslated so that they appear to be a mantra.

The meaning of this "mantra" is that we should use prajna to transcend all sufferings and attain Buddhahood. "Gate" (pronounced: ga-tay) means "go." Paragate means "to the shore beyond." In this case, the shore refers to ultimate nirvana. Parasamgate means that all of us, all together, are to go to the shore beyond. I, the practitioner, do not wish to cross the ocean alone. I want everyone to cross. This is the bodhisattva spirit. Bodhi Svaha is the perfection of Buddhahood. Svaha means "completion" or "perfection." All together, the line means: "Go, go, go to the shore beyond. Everybody go together to the shore beyond and complete the bodhi path."

As practitioners, we should view this entire sutra as the mantra of wisdom and power. In reciting the Heart Sutra, we are immersing ourselves in the core of Buddhism. That is why we recite this sutra every day. It can help us to rid ourselves of vexation and delusion. It can help us to attain enlightenment.

Memoirs of a Monk's Journey To Thailand (part 2)
by Guo-yuan Fa Shi

Part Two: The Life of Practitioners in Thai Buddhist Monasteries.

In the last article I described what I saw to be the general conditions of Buddhism in Thailand during the course of my year-long stay in that country. In particular, I emphasized the quality of the precepts that the Thai Sangha and lay practitioners maintained. I also talked about my immersion in the Thai language, culture and Buddhist tradition, as well as my visits to famous monasteries. Such monasteries are representative of the monastic tradition in Thailand. In this article I would like to further explain what practitioners do and how they practice in these monasteries.

Generally speaking, Thai people are very supportive of Buddhist practitioners, above and beyond their daily offerings of food to the Sangha. As a small example, people make special offerings of clothing and utensils necessary for day-to-day living during holidays and festivals.

Lay people have high respect for members of the Sangha, especially if the monk carries himself in a way that is in accordance with the precepts. In Buddhism there is a term which, when translated, connotes meanings like "adornment" or "solemnity." For our purposes, however, we can simply use the term "appearance." "Appearance" does not merely mean what a monk looks like, but rather, it encompasses how a monk conducts himself in his daily life, and in particular, whether or not his behavior is in accordance with the many precepts.

From what I observed, Thai lay people pay a lot of attention to the "appearance" of Sangha members. If a householder believes the "appearance" of a monk deserves more respect, the householder will show more respect toward that monk. On the other hand, if the "appearance" of a monk seems to be off, or lacking, or in apparent violation of the precepts, the householder may try to get people to intervene and check whether or not that monk is keeping the precepts. In Thailand, there is an administration or management group that monitors the behavior of left-home people. If the management group thinks that a monk is not conducting himself well, it can ask the monk to revoke his vow and return to being a lay person.

Traditionally, in Thailand, young men and boys will leave home for a short period of time to get a taste of monastic life. Even now, as many as 75 to 80 percent of the young men will experience -- at least for a short while -- the left-home lifestyle. In the past the percentage was even higher, but now some people follow other religions or are not as traditional. After taking the precepts and living the lifestyle of a monk for a while, they will return to a lay person's lifestyle. Because so many young men have experienced life as a Sangha member, they can more easily identify a monk who is not acting in accordance with the precepts. If they think something is not quite right, they will ask the Sangha management group to take care of it. In this way, the conduct of the Sangha in Thailand is maintained.

That is not to say that in Thailand there is no history or instance of a monk breaking precepts. Such things do happen. In fact, while I was in Thailand there was a serious incident involving a certain group of monks. This group was characterized as follows: they firmly believed that a monk should hold the precepts in a very strict manner; they believed a monk should observe a strict vegetarian diet; they often criticized other groups of monks for various reasons. So, even though they believed in holding precepts strictly, they created disharmony because they criticized others in the Sangha. The Sangha management group chose not to recognize this specific group as part of the Sangha. This specific group, although it still exists, is not recognized by society as being part of the Sangha, and they wear white robes instead of the traditional robes.

It is clear that the general Thai population has a high regard for and keeps a close watch on the actions of the Sangha. Because of this support and monitoring system, Buddhism flourishes in Thailand. It comes as no surprise, then, that there are many famous monasteries for practice in Thailand. Even though each monastery has its own specialized ways of practice, they all operate on the basis of three fundamental principles: impermanence, suffering, and selflessness. Even highly attained practitioners still regard these three principles as the essence of their practice. I visited quite a few places and this was clearly so. It was also evident that, at all of these temples and monasteries, monks had great confidence in their own methods of practice.

One monastery that I was impressed with is called the Temple of Beautiful Banyan Trees. The temple was originally founded and built in a barren and hot area. In Thailand, if people consider you to be a monk of good practice, they are willing to donate land for you to build a temple on. The Temple of Beautiful Banyan Trees sits on 48 acres of land, all of which was donated. Soon after receiving this donation, Sangha members worked and tended the soil, planting many Banyan trees and other vegetation. After many years the trees grew to provide the area with shade and beauty, as well as the temple with its name.

The main method of practice at the Temple of Beautiful Banyan Trees can be called the "method of contemplation." This means that regardless of whether one is sitting, standing, walking, or lying down, there is a method for the mind to follow. When standing or walking, one's awareness is placed on the feet making contact with the ground. When lying down to sleep, monks sleep on their right sides, and attention is placed on those parts of the body that come in contact with the bed. When temple members sit, for any reason, they do not just sit, but, rather, they maintain a certain motion with their hands; and their minds are focused on that motion. When one hand gets tired, they switch to the other hand and continue the movements. If their hands are not in motion, then attention is placed on the buttocks.

I spent three days at that temple, and every day I went with another monk to ask for alms and food. In the car in which we all traveled this monk would discontinue his hand motions because it looked strange to other people. Instead, he placed his hand on his knee and moved only his index finger. In this way he was able to maintain an awareness of the body and wandering thoughts were minimized.

Hand movements are considered beginning levels of practice. Of course, as a monk becomes more experienced in his method of meditation, he can maintain clear awareness without moving his hand anymore. Eventually, as practitioners progress, they gain greater and deeper awareness of their bodies -- awareness of the heart beating on the left side of the body, awareness of subtleties on the right side of the body, awareness of light in the center of the body at the heart center.

Monks at this temple also used supplementary methods of practice. One I remember in particular is called "contemplation of impurity." In using this method one contemplates the transient nature of the physical body. Quite a few corpses were kept in the monastery -- including the embalmed corpse of a six-month-old baby -- as a reminder of the fleeting nature of the body we cling to so dearly. Most of these corpses were dehydrated -- not rotting -- and they were painted.

At the Temple of Beautiful Banyan Trees, the daily schedule for monks runs as follows: Practitioners rise at 4 AM. Between 5 and 6 AM, monks and novices go out to ask for food from householders. Monks return at 8 AM and eat breakfast at 8:20. After breakfast there is time for slow walking or personal tasks, which lasts until 11 AM, at which time lunch is served. From 11:30 AM to 4:30 PM, monks engage in slow walking or sitting meditation. From 4 to 5 PM, all Sangha members join together and do slow-walking meditation. From 5 to 6 PM, everyone cleans his own living quarter, which is the equivalent of a small cottage. From 6 to 6:30 PM, the Sangha again gathers for meditation or slow walking. At 8 PM, the senior monk delivers a Dharma talk and all the monks drink liquid. In the last article, I explained that, in Thailand, the precept of not eating food after lunch is generally upheld. In the evening, however, it is permissible to have some kind of liquid refreshment -- usually mixed water and juice. At the evening Dharma talk, which lasts about an hour, I counted 100 monks, 10 novice monks, 150 women holding the Eight Precepts, and a few temporary-resident practitioners, both male and female. From 9 to 10 PM is walking meditation again, and from 10 PM to 4 AM the monks rest. By this schedule, Sangha members -- with the exception of individuals with special responsibilities -- spend eight and one-half hours each day in meditation or slow walking.

At 5 AM buses leave the temple and carry fifty or so monks to a market in the vicinity of households so that they may start the morning food ritual at sun-up, which begins at about 6 AM. This ritual is called "holding the bowl" ceremony. Simply, a monk holds out his bowl and a householder puts food in it. During this part of the day, the monks must be very careful in their appearance and conduct. They walk as they do in walking meditation and their eyes do not wander. As far as householders are concerned, it does not matter whether the monk is old or young. They are concerned with "appearance" and will make offerings accordingly. Sometimes people will not offer food. If they see an elder of inspiring appearance they will offer money instead. On several occasions I participated in this ceremony, and it impressed me deeply.

Sometimes, more formal and ritualized "holding the bowl" ceremonies are performed within a monastery -- usually during festivals -- and they are elaborate affairs where everything is perfectly planned.

A second temple I would like to talk about is called the Temple of Emptiness. Whereas the abbot at the Temple Of Beautiful Banyan Trees is elderly -- about 80 years old -- the abbot at this temple is relatively young -- only 42 years old -- but he is already a very famous practitioner in Thailand. Among other things, this abbot is famous because he is said to have reached a high level of attainment with several different methods of practice. Many people in Thailand admire and emulate him. He has three or four places of practice in Thailand as well a place in Australia.

This abbot's main method of practice involves breathing. He silently repeats the word "Buddha," which is split in two parts. With the exhalation he recites "ha." With the inhalation he recites "Budd." He also practices "contemplation of compassion" and "contemplation of impurity." Every day in the Meditation Hall, the meditation session starts with tape-recorded words from this abbot which guide practioners to relax, and help them to enter a state of meditation easily. At the end of the meditation period, people do "contemplation of compassion" and transfer their merit to their relatives, friends, teachers and finally to all sentient beings. In the hall is a skeleton, which reminds people of what inevitably happens to all life forms. It is a reminder that we should not be overly concerned with and attached to our bodies. With this kind of vigilant awareness, people practice better.

In addition to this practice, simply walking from one place to another and visiting different places is emphasized. During the three-month rainy season -- from July to October -- most practitioners stay in the temple and practice together. When the rainy season ends, they will form groups and walk from one place to another. The walking is considered training for both body and mind because of its severity. Regardless of the temperature, monks dress themselves in heavy layers of clothing -- three-piece robes, seven-piece robes, nine-piece robes -- and they walk barefoot. During the day they never stop walking. A group leader leads the monks from one place to another. Sometimes they pass a beautiful place, but the leader will deliberately not give the people a chance to rest and enjoy. They just move on. In the evenings, they sleep in the forest under netting to protect themselves from mosquitoes. Snakes and other wild animals are prevalent. To me it sounded like quite an experience, and I was hoping to have the opportunity to participate in one of these walks, but causes and conditions were not right and I did not get the chance.

Precepts are strictly upheld in the Temple of Emptiness. Even though liquid food is allowed in the evenings, such things as milk, or even soy milk, are not. There is only one meal a day, at 9:30 AM, and because the abbot practices "contemplation of compassion," no meat is allowed. Monks at this monastery do not venture outside on their own time, not even if they are invited to a home by a householder. They do not even attend funeral services.

I visited the Temple of Emptiness during the dry season, but after most of the Sangha had already departed on their walking journey. Neither the abbot nor most of the monks were there. Remaining behind were thirty or so monks, a few novice monks, about ten women who kept the Eight Precepts, and a few householders from Europe, Australia and America.

At the Temple of Emptiness, people rise at 3:30 AM. From 4 to 6 AM, practitioners listen to tapes and meditate. At 6:30, the monks and novices leave the temple for the "holding the bowl" ceremony. Householders in the vicinity know the monks do not eat meat, so they offer only fruit, rice, and perhaps some cake. Meal time is from 9:30 to 10:00 AM. From 10 AM to 3 PM is personal practice time. From 3 to 4 PM, members clean the building and grounds, which is no small task. The monastery grounds are at least 200 acres, so even sweeping falling leaves is an enormous amount of work. In fact, sweeping leaves from the outdoor auditorium comprised much of the daily work. 5 PM is liquid food time, after which is evening service and meditation. At 8 PM, members engage in their individual practices, and at 10 PM they retire for the night.

The environment in and around the monastery is very special. When the abbot first passed the area a few years before building the monastery, he was impressed by its beauty. There are mountains and caves, fresh flowing water and many large trees. The abbot decided to stay in that area and build a temple. In doing so he hoped to preserve its natural bounty. Thailand is very hot, but inside the temple it is cool. In fact, while breathing or exhaling, I could sometimes see my breath's vapor. It made sitting very comfortable, and when I sat down to do breathing meditation and recite "Buddha," it was easy to forget my own body. The temple is conducive to good practice. The serenity of the surroundings coupled with the monks' meditation methods and strict adherence to the precepts impressed me very much.

I would also like to talk about a temple I visited in southern Thailand called the Garden of Liberation. A very famous abbot who has since passed on resided there. He was alive at the time of my visit, and I heard that the King of Thailand sent the very best physicians to take care of him in the last months of his life. This abbot was famous because he was very learned in the Thai Buddhist tradition, particularly the southern tradition. The southern tradition is characterized by its fewer sutras, but the abbot had also read extensively about other traditions of Buddhism. He was deeply influenced by the Ch'an tradition. Many of his books have been translated into other languages.

What is outstanding about this monastery is that at the beginning of every month, ten days are devoted to group practice. This period is open to outsiders. Many foreigners come to the monastery to practice as an alternative to other types of vacation activities. What is unique is that the Buddha Hall is outdoors, not indoors. This was because the abbot said that all of the special events of Buddha's life occurred outside: his birth, his attainment of Buddhahood, his parinirvana. So, instead of building a beautiful house to serve as a Buddha Hall, the abbot planted trees around an empty area, placed a Buddha statue in the center, and called it the Buddha Hall. Morning and evening services are held outdoors. There are houses in the monastery, such as the cottages for monks, and one building called the "Spiritual Theater" is filled with Buddha paintings from the Indian tradition.

The monastery, which is extensive, is divided into three parts. The section where they have the Buddha Hall comprises about 120 acres, and also includes a kitchen, reception area, gardens and spiritual theater. Another 40 acres is devoted to the ten-day open practice period. The third portion -- about 30 acres -- has cottages built upon it and is used to house incoming monks and Westerners who visit and practice. Each month about a hundred people come for the ten-day practice period. They are taught concepts of Buddhism and methods of practice. Out of a hundred people, a few will be impressed enough to return again. Some even choose to stay on longer for more intensive practice.

What is difficult about living in this monastery is that they serve only one vegetarian meal per day. Many people cannot stay for long on such small rations. Members normally eat what is offered to them during the "holding the bowl" ceremony. I wanted to participate in the ten-day practice period, but when I arrived I discovered that the ten-day period was not open to monks, only to Western householders. Because of Thailand's deep respect for monks, monks and householders do not often mingle. If householders and monks meditate together, monks must sit on elevated seats. Furthermore, Westerners who are unfamiliar with the precepts may inadvertently violate one or more of them. Therefore, as a precautionary measure, ten-day retreats are not open to monks. Knowing of my desire to practice and understanding that I traveled a long way to do so, I was granted permission to sit in on the teaching of the methods. Afterwards, however, I had to return to the place where the monks practiced.

At this monastery, the main method of practice also involves breathing, but it is divided into four stages. The first stage connects the body with the breath. The second stage connects the breath with emotions. Stage three trains the mind to harmonize consciousness and breath. At stage four, one contemplates the three fundamental ideas: impermanence, suffering, and selflessness.

Each of these four stages focuses on certain details. For example, in part one you are taught to experience a connection to your breathing: Is your breathing long or short? Is your breathing coarse or fine? What does your body feel like? As you gain an understanding of the method, you can adjust your breathing. Stage two deals with emotions and the breath. Breathing can be that of happiness, it can be of suffering. One is taught to experience connections between breathing and emotions of happiness and suffering. Through breathing, we can train ourselves to maintain deeper levels of concentration and a harmonious mind. In the third stage we are aware of thoughts arising and disappearing in our minds. As we do this, our minds become more and more concentrated. The final stage is when our minds are finely attuned such that we can contemplate impermanence, suffering, and selflessness.

I enjoyed this method very much. It quickly focused my attention and made me aware of my changing moods, feelings and thoughts. I believe it to be a valuable method, and so I pass it on to you.

by Lindley Hanlon

My thoughts on the moon
move me;
The moon moves not.


Watching the moon:
a sutra
of profound


One solitary blossom,
wide awake.
The rest are sleeping,
or waiting.

Lindley Hanlon

Lin-chi Ch'an and the Use of Kung-an and Hua-t'ou
by Prof. Dan Stevenson

This is the second in a series of articles excerpted from a forthcoming book entitled Hoofprint of the Ox. It is based on several lectures by Master Sheng-yen; translated, compiled, arranged and edited into its present form by Professor Dan Stevenson.

Most people familiar with Japanese Zen -- especially the Japanese Rinzai school formalized in the eighteenth century by the Zen master Hakuin -- will have heard of the use of enigmatic Ch'an anecdotes and sayings known as koan as a method of Zen meditation. "Koan" is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word kung-an. The use of kung-an and its corollary technique of hua-t'ou (meaning, "the crux of a saying") was initially developed by Chinese Ch'an masters. Although masters of all Ch'an persuasions collected and discoursed on kung-an, it was those of the Lin-chi line, such as Ta-hui Tsung-kao (1089-1163), who gave it special place, making it the basis of a distinctive style of meditation known as kan-hua Ch'an (Japanese, kanna zen) or "Ch'an involving the investigation of a saying." When the Ts'ao-tung and Lin-chi schools of Ch'an were introduced to Japan in the thirteenth century, the use of kung-an came with them. Over the centuries that followed, Japanese Zen masters developed their own unique methods for applying kung-an to Zen training, culminating in the system of Hakuin prevalent in Japanese Rinzai monasteries today.

The term kung-an (or koan), which we often render as "public case," is basically the same term used in ancient times for a legal case or precedent. In the judicial sphere, kung-an were records of significant legal events, which detailed both the circumstances of the offense or suit and the deliberations of the magistrate who adjudicated it. In Ch'an, the kung-an is a record of a significant episode in the life of a Ch'an master or patriarch, an episode that often bears directly upon the training or enlightenment of that master or his disciples. Much as a magistrate may review famous kung-an of the past in order to hone his or her judicial skills or look for precedents in making legal decisions, Ch'an practitioners will use kung-an of past masters to test and further their understanding. For most of the Ch'an patriarchs at least one kung-an has been recorded. Sometimes there are three, four, even more. Generally these cases involve key moments of interaction between master and disciple or two eminent Ch'an figures. They may be moments when, upon receiving a particularly powerful stimulus from his teacher, the disciple becomes enlightened. Or they may describe encounters in which Ch'an brethren test and reveal one another's relative depth of understanding. Then again, they may record instances when such an opportunity for enlightenment and the meeting of minds arises, but it passes without the student being able to make use of it.

In Ch'an literature there is a famous story relating Bodhidharma's audience with Liang Wu Ti, the devout Buddhist emperor of the Liang Dynasty. Emperor Wu described to Bodhidharma his many projects of charity and support for Buddhism and asked, "What kind of merit have I received from this?"

Bodhidharma replied, "No merit whatsoever."

A little later Emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma, "How would you characterize true merit?"

Bodhidharma said, "Pure wisdom is marvelous and perfect; its essence is intrinsically empty and quiescent. Such merit is not sought by worldly means."

To which Emperor Wu queried, "What is the ultimate meaning of the holy truth [of absolute reality]?"

Bodhidharma replied, "Empty and vast -- there is no holiness."

Emperor Wu then said, "Who is this person standing before me?"

Bodhidharma replied, "I do not know."

Emperor Wu did not grasp Bodhidharma's meaning. Knowing that the Emperor did not have the capacity to receive the Ch'an teaching, Bodhidharma departed.[1]

Once a certain senior monk named Ting asked Lin-chi, "What is the cardinal meaning of the Buddhist teaching?" Lin-chi came down from his seat, grabbed hold of Ting, slapped him and pushed him away roughly. Ting stood there motionless. Another monk standing nearby said, "Elder Ting, why don't you bow to show your respect?" Just as Ting bowed he suddenly experienced great awakening.

Then again, a monk once asked Tung-shan, founding patriarch of the Ts'ao-tung line, "What is Buddha?"

Tung-shan replied, "Three pounds of flax."

A student once asked Ts'ao-shan, Tung-shan's successor, "What does it mean to say that there is ultimate truth in phenomenal things?"

Master Ts'ao-shan replied, "The very phenomena are themselves ultimate truth."

"Then how should it be revealed?" the student asked. The master just lifted a tea tray.

These are just several examples of kung-an associated with great Ch'an masters. From the latter half of the T'ang dynasty, the period that is often looked upon as the golden age of Ch'an, disciples began to compile lineage histories (teng-lu) and records of sayings and actions (yu-lu) of famous Ch'an masters in their respective lines. Thus, numerous kung-an of this sort began to be pulled together and organized around the different houses or lines of Ch'an. Today, Ch'an lineage histories like Tao-yuan's monumental Ching-te ch'uan-teng lu (Record of the Transmission of the Lamp Compiled During the Ching-te Era, compiled in 1004) and Recorded Sayings collections for such influential masters as Lin-chi, Ta-hui, Yun-men, Tung-shan, Ts'ao-shan, and others preserve a rich array of kung-an from a formative period of Ch'an.

As time passed, some of these stories became quite well known among Ch'an practitioners. They were referred to and discussed on a wide scale, and increasingly came to define a common idiom of Ch'an culture. In the discourses and writings of Sung dynasty masters (such as Ta-hui Tsung-kao of the Lin-chi school or Hung-chih Cheng-chieh of the Ts'ao-tung line) we find many examples of masters raising kung-an and asking their students to respond to them. Indeed, by the time of the Sung dynasty (960-1279) it became quite common for Ch'an masters to select from Ch'an records those kung-an that they considered most effective or poignant, organizing them into sets of one hundred or more. Often they would go on to add their own verse or prose commentary to the individual cases and circulate them to Ch'an students, so that their successors or Ch'an masters of other schools came to use them, at times adding their own comments to the text. In fact, the Blue Cliff Record (Chinese, Pi-yen lu; Japanese, Hekiganroku) of Yuan-wu K'o-ch'in and the Gateless Barrier (Chinese, Wu-men kuan; Japanese, Mumenkan) of Wu-men Hui-k'ai -- the two most popular kung-an compendia in China and Japan -- took shape and gained their fame precisely by this process.

In the past, as today, kung-an have proven an effective approach to Ch'an training. Originally they were used throughout all branches of Ch'an, including the Ts'ao-tung school, which is often mistakenly thought to give its attention solely to the practice of "silent illumination" (mo-chao) or D"gen's teaching of "just sitting -- nothing more" (shikantaza). In time, however, their use became increasingly identified with the Lin-chi (Rinzai) line.

Using collections of kung-an like those described above, a master might bring up a particular case and ask his disciple to respond to it. Perhaps the teacher will reject the student's answer, even throw him out and compel him to consider it further. Then again, he may confront the student with secondary responses to the kung-an offered by former masters, or give him another related kung-an. When we examine the sayings and discourses of Chinese Ch'an masters, this use of kung-an seems to have been quite fluid -- as the master saw fit at the moment. However, it was also not unusual for Ch'an masters to discourse or have their disciples work sequentially through the kung-an contained in such collections as the Blue Cliff Record and Gateless Barrier. This especially became the rule in Japanese Rinzai Zen.

This approach to Ch'an has occasionally been criticized for leading to a sort of empty formalism or spiritual materialism: It may create the misconception that Ch'an practice is merely a matter of "passing" a pre-set body of kung-an, much as one might plod from grade to grade and finally graduate from college. Or else, in studying the example of the patriarchs, one may mistakenly come to think that Ch'an practice involves nothing more than dramatizing or imitating their speech and behavior -- act like a master and you become a master. These are indeed grave problems. In fact, it is said that the Lin-chi master Ta-hui Tsung-kao became so incensed at students' misuse of his teacher's text of the Blue Cliff Record that he had the text and its printing blocks burned.

Nonetheless, using kung-an is by no means inherently bad. Kung-an collections were compiled for two reasons: as historical and literary records of the tradition and as a means (or measure) to help people practice. Of the two, the latter was most essential. Masters such as Yuan-wu and Wu-men produced texts like the Blue Cliff Record and Gateless Barrier because they found them particularly helpful to their students. What we must understand in order to appreciate kung-an properly is the true function they are meant to play in Ch'an training.

Kung-an, as we noted previously, are records of a living encounter between master and disciple, an encounter that often marks a crucial turning-point in a disciple's practice. Such an incident had immediacy and living significance for the original participants. As a record or tale, however, it is dead words. When a later practitioner takes up the story the original incident is dead and gone. There is no way one can go back and reclaim or re-experience the original encounter. One does not approach the kung-an with the idea of trying to imitate and become the master and disciple in the story. But the tale may be used as a tool, as an impetus to create a new situation or living "public case" of one's own. In short, one uses past kung-an to generate one's own enlightenment encounter. When this happens it is a living kung-an.

In the recorded sayings and biographical records of the Ch'an school we find practitioners of many different generations who grappled with Chao-chou's kung-an about dogs having Buddha-nature. They did not go back and try to relive or rediscover Chao-chou's enlightenment. Their struggle and their enlightenment grew out of their own particular circumstances -- fresh and immediate. Upon reading Chao-chou they may feel a kinship with him, but their understanding is their own. What Chao-chou said and did in the past has nothing to do with them now. Thus, although kung-an center around episodes of past Ch'an "tradition," as tools for practice their thrust is the here and now. It is a mistake to think so much about Ch'an tradition -- what Lin-chi calls "the useless contrivances of former masters" -- that you forget to "hoe your own garden."

Enlightenment experienced in the course of Ch'an practice can be deep or shallow. Regardless of the technique used in practice, it will vary according to the individual. This diversity is not only reflected in the kung-an themselves, but insights generated from kung-an practice will vary according to the individual. For the most part this is a matter of circumstances and spiritual capacity.

As far as kung-an themselves are concerned, some are shallow, some are obviously abstruse. Then there are kung-an which are quite elusive, where the meaning progressively changes or unfolds in response to the level of experience of the practitioner. In such instances, several different levels of response are possible, such that the kung-an is never simply finished or "passed." Sometimes different sentences in one and the same kung-an will involve completely different levels of discourse.

Persons with shallow insight may not be able to fathom what deeper experiences are like, or they may have an inkling but no clear grasp. Fairly straightforward kung-an may present no problem for them. But when confronted with really abstruse kung-an they may feel completely baffled. Or, they may think the meaning is obvious when, in fact, they are completely incapable of appreciating its true subtlety.

On the other hand, persons with deep experience will know what has transpired the instant they encounter a kung-an. They will discern automatically the different levels of insight reflected in different kung-an. Even though these incidents are themselves dead and gone, for these individuals it is as though they are alive. Their own experience brings life to them, and because of this living insight they know what they are all about. It is analogous to the practice of samadhi in traditional Buddhism. If one realizes the deepest levels of samadhi, all lesser states of samadhi and their characteristics will automatically be known, without their actually having been cultivated.

Thus, for persons who are deeply experienced, kung-an are no longer relevant. For persons with no experience or shallow experience they can be quite helpful. If they are not already working in a formal system of kung-an practice, such persons may read through the kung-an records. When they get to a kung-an that they become stuck on, the doubt that is generated can provide a powerful catalyst to their practice. This is really what kung-an practice is all about, both in its systematic and unsystematic forms. It is the doubt that makes the kung-an a living and vital issue, and any "answer" to the kung-an that the student might offer must grow directly out of his or her own struggle with Ch'an practice and this great doubt.

To this end, working with an experienced master is indispensable, for the master can help the student bring the kung-an to life and prevent him or her from going astray. When assigning kung-an to students, the master may take a variety of different approaches. He may begin with shallower kung-an and move to progressively deeper ones. Or, he may first test the student with deeper ones and move to shallower kung-an if the student cannot respond. There need not be a fixed approach -- at least in the Chinese Ch'an tradition. In some instances the disciple may get lucky and give what seems to be a correct response. To test it the master may bring out other kung-an of a similar level. Sometimes he will find the student's experience is false. This sort of incident is more likely to occur if a student reads or hears a lot of kung-an anecdotes and is a good actor. There are patterns in kung-an, as well as certain characteristic types of behavior. By studying and emulating them one can come up with some pretty reasonable responses. However, while this may fool some people, especially beginners, a person who is truly experienced in practice will soon see right through this. Of course, this kind of empty show is useless for one's own practice. The facts of one's condition cannot be changed just by changing the appearance or the words. Actually, if the student has made progress with a kung-an he should feel it. He and the master will definitely know whether he has made a genuine step or not. Thus it is a waste of time to put on empty shows. For kung-an to be helpful one needs great integrity: any effort to answer it must come directly out of one's practice and heart. Because we are so emotionally complicated and self-deceptive, this can be a very difficult thing to do on one's own. Since experienced teachers can expose fraudulence and abuse of kung-an instantly, they are an indispensable boon to kung-an practice.

As a technique of practice, concentration on a kung-an accompanied by intense confrontations with a master are intended to generate extreme pressures in order to uncover and completely utilize a person's hidden mental power. It is much the same as physical power. Everyone knows that we have a lot of hidden physical power available to us, of which we normally use but a fraction. Under pressure the situation can change. For example, under ordinary circumstances a person cannot jump far or move very fast. But with a tiger chasing him or a child in danger he may move a lot farther and faster than he ever thought possible. Things like this have happened to almost all of us. You do not know where the strength comes from, but in a life or death situation you find the strength to do what must be done. In many respects, the use of kung-an or hua-t'ou and regular interviews with a master is a method designed to put a student in a desperate mental situation -- a life and death situation -- thereby forcing him to utilize his hidden resources to save himself. Of course, the issue here is not simply a matter of jumping far and running fast. It is finding a solution to the problem of birth and death.

Ch'an masters of the past have charted stages of spiritual progress in a variety of different ways. Some speak of passing three main barriers, others four. Kung-an have been classified accordingly. But these are actually all crude, even tentative, classifications. Generally, over the course of their lives practitioners will go through tens, even hundreds, of instances in which doubt and crisis generate pressure and, finally, spiritual breakthroughs. Some may come through formal contemplation of kung-an, others from issues arising spontaneously in everyday practice. In the final analysis, it is the reality of progress that is most important, not the form and literature of the kung-an. Kung-an practice should express a spirit of fundamental unity between the individual and the Dharma.

What is meant by Dharma? Dharma is the enlightenment experienced by Shakyamuni Buddha under the Bodhi tree, and the enlightenment that has subsequently been experienced by generations of Ch'an patriarchs and masters down to today. On the surface, the content of kung-an may seem absurd, irrational. Yet, it truly corresponds to Dharma and issues forth from Dharma, for the patriarch's mind was one with Dharma. In the practice of Ch'an, one's own mind must be in harmony with Dharma in order for one to generate the power or energy of Dharma. This is why it is so essential to work with a living master. The master can correct one's mistaken attitudes and help bring one's mind quickly into harmony with Dharma so that one can generate the power of Dharma. When Dharma, the master, and the student are all harmonized -- when they are a single unity -- enlightenment and transmission of Dharma take place.

[1]. Ching-te ch'uan-teng lu, T 51.219a.

Song of Mind of Niu-t'ou Fa-Jung
Commentary by Master Sheng-yen

One of a series of lectures given during retreat at the Ch'an Center, Elmhurst, Queens, New York.

The Song of Mind continues:

Know that mind is not mind;
There is no sickness, no medicine.
When in confusion, you must discard affairs;
Enlightened, it makes no difference.

If we must use our minds to practice, how can we arrive at the state of no-mind from our normal scattered condition, or even from the level of one mind? Ch'an teaches two methods to reach the state of no-mind: silent illumination, which in the Japanese Zen tradition is called shikantaza, and hua-t'ou practice, which is more commonly known as koan (kung-an) practice. Both methods are useful and enable practitioners to attain the level of no-mind, but their approaches are different. Hua-t'ou practice usually leads to a more clear-cut enlightenment experience, one that may be either shallow or profound. Enlightenment experiences resulting from silent illumination -- although they happen suddenly (as with hua-t'ou practice) -- usually start off shallow and gradually deepen with continued practice.

Methods of practice described in the Surangama Sutra are similar to silent illumination. For example, the sutra describes how the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara used the method of perfecting the sense organ of the ear. Avalokitesvara used the ear to listen to the sound of his self-nature. But self-nature has no sound. The method, therefore, is essentially silent illumination.

Master Hsu-yun (Empty Cloud) described a method of reverting the light of one's awareness to contemplate Mind. This Mind is pure, enlightened intrinsic-nature. This Mind has no fixed characteristics. Mind is the Buddha and Buddha is this Mind. At the moment one truly perceives, or listens to, this self-nature, it is the same as becoming a Buddha. But the practice leading to this moment is gradual. One turns one's awareness inward, watching and listening. Gradually, vexations and wandering thoughts will diminish and eventually disappear. When all wandering thoughts cease, all that remains is the sound of one's self-nature. But this is just an expression. There is no "sound" of self-nature. Hsu-yun's method is also equivalent to Avalokitesvara's method and to silent illumination. For beginning practitioners, however, it is very difficult to successfully use this method, so it is advised that practitioners begin by counting or following the breath. But if you use these methods and reach a point where counting or following naturally falls away, then these methods, too, are equivalent to the method of silent illumination.

If you wish to use the Bodhisattva Av-alokitesvara's method, you must begin by using your false mind and listen to actual sounds. This, however, is not what Avalokitesvara was doing. The true method of listening to sound starts only when there is no sound to be heard. For those of you on retreat using sound-listening methods, be aware of this. Do not try to emulate Avalokitesvara's method. You must practice at the level at which you are. Likewise, for those who are counting breaths, it is only when the number naturally falls away that you can successfully begin using the hua-t'ou method or silent illumination. Purposely dropping the number even though you are still wrestling with wandering thoughts is just fooling yourself. When you can sit for successive periods using the breathing method with minimal or no overt wandering thoughts, that is a sign that you are approaching the stillness of mind needed to successfully use these other methods. Of course, one can begin, right from the start, with a hua-t'ou or with silent illumination. There are no hard and fast rules. It is just easier to begin with other methods and then later switch once the mind has somewhat cleared and stilled.

There are many levels to the hua-t'ou method. With one question -- for example, "Who am I?" -- you can go deeper and deeper until there seems to be nothing left to work on. You may think the hua-t'ou is finished. At this point, some teachers or schools give a new hua-t'ou, but it is not necessary. You can still go further. Eventually, something will open up again and you will be able to go even deeper into the hua-t'ou. Again you may reach a point where there seems to be nothing left to work on, and then a new level will open up. You can work on one hua-t'ou for the rest of your life. Even at the moment of death there may still be more levels to work on. Silent illumination can also be a lifelong process of going deeper and deeper into practice, but it differs from hua-t'ou practice. With silent illumination, you begin with nothing, so there is never any sense of reaching a point where there is nothing left to work on and then having new levels open up. With silent illumination you do not see these levels. You just go deeper and deeper with continued practice.

A hua-t'ou is actually meaningless and quite uninteresting. It is comparable to a dog chewing on cotton. A bone would be delicious, but cotton is tasteless and flat. That is what a hua-t'ou is like for the beginning practitioner. You must work with a hua-t'ou, like a persistent dog chewing cotton, until you derive flavor from the method.

Answering a hua-t'ou with your intellect is not the goal of the method. Do not spend all your time and effort trying to imagine an answer. You may initially come up with a superficial answer. That is not it. After hard concentration and diligence, you may come up with what you think is a profound realization. That is not it either. I will use another chewing analogy. Working on a hua-t'ou is like chewing on grains of rice. In the beginning, all you are doing is chewing the outer shell. It is tasteless and without nutrition. You may think you are chewing the rice, but you are not. After breaking through the shell, you think, "Now I've got it!" But really, you have not gotten it. You are just beginning. Even after breaking the rice into finer and finer bits, the nutrition is still locked inside. You must continue to chew, even after the rice seems to be gone. It is here that I must depart from the analogy. In reality, practice goes even further. You must continue, not only after the rice is gone, but until and after you also are gone. Practice is complete only when you reach Buddhahood.

There are people who cannot use the hua-t'ou method, and there are people who cannot initially begin with the hua-t'ou method. The Japanese Rinzai sect often has people start with the hua-t'ou method. But for most beginners, the hua-t'ou method would be no different from the counting breath method. It would be nothing more than a recitation, because at this point there is no genuine doubt in their minds. A necessary element of hua-t'ou practice is the presence of a sense of doubt. In this case, we are not talking about ordinary doubt. By doubt we mean a burning, uninterrupted persistence to get to the root of a question which is unanswerable. It is rare to have this doubt sensation right from the start. Beginners would just be repeating the hua-t'ou over and over like a mantra. Eventually, the sense of doubt may rise up. At that point, true hua-t'ou practice begins. The word "Ch'an" has, as part of its meaning, the idea of investigating or questioning. Proper practice is to question or investigate a hua-t'ou. I do not have my students begin with a hua- t'ou. First, I suggest they use methods that will collect, concentrate and quiet their minds.

There are people who simply cannot use a hua- t'ou. Usually it has to do with their physiology, specifically chi. For some practitioners, the flow of their chi makes it difficult for them to stabilize their minds to a point where hua-t'ou practice or silent illumination can be useful. There are practices for training the mind, such as hua-t'ou and silent illumination and counting breaths, and there are practices for training the body and chi. However, body and mind are intimately connected, so sometimes the methods for the mind trigger responses in the practitioner's physiology. Such practitioners must learn to properly control or channel their chi, and then practice will flow more smoothly.

When chi moves smoothly and harmoniously, then one's physical condition will be stable and strong, and the mind will be calmer. This is a good foundation for practice. If, at this point, your chi is acting up and making it difficult to practice, do not be discouraged. Continue to practice. It will work itself out. Practice will help to make your chi flow more smoothly. You are laying a strong foundation for future practice.

Chi can be felt as many things: movement, a tingling sensation, heat, coolness, pressure, blockage, etc. Sometimes, people experience things they think are chi, but really they are not. For instance, I have advised one of my students not to use the hua-t'ou method for the time being. When he uses a hua-t'ou, he applies too much effort. The result is that energy rises in his body and causes him to feel painful pressure in his head. This is not chi, but actual blood flow to the brain. Sometimes, the heat you feel is created by chi. Sometimes, it is heat from another source. Working on a method requires energy. Even though you are sitting in one position, you are still working hard. Heat can originate from many things. When one enters samadhi, there is a heat which arises which actually evaporates vexations. That is the kind of heat we can all use.

It is a common misconception that, in order to work hard and concentrate, one must tense up and apply pressure. This is how physiological problems arise. It can cause your heart to race or your blood pressure to rise. If you are concentrating hard on your method, you may not notice this change. When you do notice the change, it might worry you. At that point, you have lost your method and have also increased your vexation. The best approach is to relax. I always say, "Relax your body and mind, but work hard." It means to concentrate without applying tension or pressure. If you feel these uncomfortable physiological sensations, do not be alarmed. Just relax. Place your attention on the soles of your feet or at the center of your gravity and relax. Your energy will calm down. When chi flows smoothly and harmoniously through your body, you will not be aware of it. You will just feel calm, healthy, alert, vitalized, and energetic, not nervous and fidgety.

"When in confusion, you must discard affairs; Enlightened, it makes no difference." When you are confused, it is necessary to discard or let go of vexations. This is done gradually, in successive stages, which I continually reiterate. First, let go of the past and future. Second, let go of the environment around you. Third, let go of the previous thought and the next thought. This is the process.

Letting go of the previous thought and the next thought is difficult. With anything that is temporal -- and from our point of view everything seems to be temporal -- there are always three elements: past, present and future. Even with a single thought, these three elements are present. But if you can let go of the past and the future, then the present will also be gone. However, there is an exception. When your mind suddenly stops, at that moment the connection between past and future is broken and all that remains is the present. This is the state of no-mind. After enlightenment, you need no longer be concerned with letting go of things. At that level, there is nothing to be discarded and nothing to be picked up.


Copyright © 2001
Dharma Drum Mountain