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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
by Lindley Hanlon
My thoughts on the moon
The moon moves not.
Watching the moon:
One solitary blossom,
The rest are sleeping,
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
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.
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
A student once asked Ts'ao-shan, Tung-shan's
successor, "What does it mean to say that there is ultimate truth in
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
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
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.
. Ching-te ch'uan-teng lu, T 51.219a.
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
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
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
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.