Spring 2000
Volume 20, Number 2

Karma, cause, condition

The two greatest principles of the Buddhadharma are the belief in karma and the recognition of cause and condition.

Be careful not to create causes that lead to the Three Evil Paths. Instead, cultivate the causes for enlightenment. Upholding the five precepts and striving to be good creates a better environment for future practice. Even those who are liberated must abide by karma, for they still live in the phenomenal world..

Chan Master Sheng-yen

Song of Mind of Niu-t'ou Fa-jung Commentary by Master Sheng-yen on a seventh-century poem expressing the Chan understanding of mind. This article is the 29th from a series of lectures given during retreats at the Chan Center in Elmhurst, New York. These talks were given on November 29 and 30, 1987, and were edited by Chris Marano.  Commentary by Master Sheng-yen
The Four Noble Truths This is the first of four Sunday afternoon talks by Master Sheng-yen on the Four Noble Truths, at the Chan Meditation Center from November 1st to November 22nd, 1998. The talks were translated live by Ven. Guo-gu Shi, transcribed from tape by Bruce Rickenbacher, and edited by Ernest Heau, with assistance from Lindley Hanlon. Endnotes were added by Ernest Heau.   A Lecture by Master Sheng-yen
Spiritual Practice in Hung-Chou Chan An article by Dale S. Wright, Professor of Religious Studies at Occidental College, Los Angeles, concerning some early regional influences on the Chan lineage.  By Prof. Dale S. Wright

Sorting Out My Things Retreat Report

 By A.B.
Silent Illumination Poem  By Harry Miller

This magazine is published quarterly by the Institute of Chung-Hwa Buddhist Culture, Chan Meditation Center, 90-56 Corona Avenue, Elmhurst, New York 11373, (718) 592-6593. This is a non-profit venture solely supported by contributions from members of the Chan Center and the readership.Donations for magazine publication costs or other Chan Center functions may be sent to the above address and will be gratefully appreciated. Your donation is tax deductible. 

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Founder/Teacher: Shi-fu (Master) Venerable Dr. Sheng-yen 
Editors: Guo-gu Bhikshu, David Berman, Ernest Heau, Harry Miller, Linda Peer 

Managing Editor: Lawrence Waldron
Section Editors: Chris Marano: Master Sheng-yen, David Berman: practitioners' articles, interviews, etc, Buffe Laffey: news and upcoming events.
Design: Chih-Ching Lee 
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Other assistance: Linda Peer, Nora Ling-yun Shih, Christine Tong, Dorothy Weiner 

Song of Mind of Niu-t'ou Fa-jung 

Commentary by Master Sheng-yen 

This article is the 29th from a series of lectures given during retreats at the Chan Center in Elmhurst, New York. These talks were given on December 1st and 26th, 1987 and were edited by Chris Marano. 

There is neither people nor seeing.
Without seeing there is constant appearance.

These verses relate to what the Diamond Sutra says about there being no self and no sentient beings. In this case, "no people" refers to there being no objective reality and "no seeing" refers to there being no self-view, or subjective reality. However, even though there is neither self (subject) nor others (object), everything is still clearly perceived the way it is. When there is no "you" working on the method and no method being used, we say that you have become one with the method; and although there is neither a "you" nor the method, you are still working hard from moment to moment.

People come to retreats so that they can spend an intense, extended period of time cultivating their minds. For most people, meditating an hour or two a day at home does not provide enough momentum to penetrate a method deeply. As we meditate sitting period after sitting period, we should attempt to make the environment as well as our minds become smaller and smaller, until there are no others to see and no self that sees them.

I understand that some retreatants here are making phone calls and waiting for family members to arrive so that they can receive and deliver messages. People who have been on retreat before know that this is not permitted, and for good reason. If we cannot even remove ourselves from our relationships with the outside world for seven days, there is no way we will be able to make our minds and the environment become smaller.

The first condition for a successful retreat experience is that you let go of, or isolate yourself from, all thoughts about anything outside the Chan Meditation Hall. The second condition is that you let go of all thoughts about everything that happens in the Meditation Hall. If someone yawns and causes you to yawn in turn, then you have not yet removed yourself from what goes on around you. Although yawns may be contagious under normal conditions, they should have no affect on you during retreat. Train yourself to remember that you have no relationship to people sitting around you.

They are they and you are you. I see that someone is dozing while I am lecturing. What do you think? Is it because she is bored or sleepy, or is it because she is clearly on her method and knows that I have nothing to do with her? Since it is the first day of retreat, I would wager that it is the former reason.

The third condition is that you let go of all thoughts about yourself. When your legs or back become painful, you must cultivate the ability to say, "These legs and back have nothing to do with me. I am meditating." Or, this sleepy practitioner can tell herself, "My drowsiness has nothing to do with me. My body may be drowsy, but I will continue to work on my method."

The same is true of wandering thoughts. Once you realize you have been caught in a web of wandering thoughts, all you have to do is return to the method. The wandering thoughts are not you. The person who had just entertained wandering thoughts is also no longer you. That person is now part of the past. In the present moment, you are working hard on your method. If what I am saying to you right now is useful to you right now, then accept it; but do not continue to think about it. Likewise, do not imagine what the next moment will bring. You will experience it soon enough.

If you can isolate yourself in this manner -- first from the outside environment, then from those around you, then from your own body and wandering thoughts, and finally from the past moment and the next moment -- then you, your method and the environment will disappear. This is the ideal. When practitioners claim they have reached such a level of absorption, it is usually for a different reason. Namely, they have become fatigued from expending so much energy and have fallen into a stupor. Many people who claim to have had enlightenment experiences have merely gone blank from exhaustion. Obviously, this is not the condition of which the Song of Mind speaks. If it were, I am sure many of you would have already experienced enlightenment.

"Without seeing there is constant appearance" also refers to the enlightened mind. To an enlightened being, all phenomena are still present and moving, but there is no self which interacts with them. This condition -- when there is no self but everything is still present -- is called wisdom. There is complete awareness of phenomena and all of their movements, including the movement of the body, but there is no self which attaches to it. If, in your practice you get a taste of what it is like to be undisturbed by the environment, you will feel free and at ease. If you get to the point where your former thought and subsequent thought have no relationship to each other, you will feel even freer.

What I speak of is not easy to accomplish. We are ordinary human beings, and as such we are often moved by our thoughts, feelings and emotions. We are moved by sensations of the body. When our body is in pain, or ill, or exhausted, it is difficult to concentrate on things like meditation methods. In addition, we are moved by thoughts of the past and future. We are moved by others around us. We are moved by the everyday world. That is why retreats exist, so that we can devote the time and effort necessary to isolate ourselves from such relationships.

Today is the first day of retreat. Begin it by isolating yourself from the outside world. Let go of all thoughts about the day you just experienced. For the next seven days, your world is your method in the present moment. Devote all of your attention to it.

Completely penetrating everything, 
It has always pervaded everywhere.

When you arrive at the stage where there is neither objects to be seen nor a self who sees them, yet there is still clear and constant awareness, then you will have complete understanding of all phenomena in all realms throughout space and time. This is what is meant by the verse, "Completely penetrating everything." It is difficult to grasp the magnitude of such limitless awareness. Perhaps you think it is similar to having psychic abilities, but it is far beyond that. It is true that many people have different kinds of psychic powers, but have anyone of them ever claimed to be omniscient? A psychic's powers are always limited. By the standards of one who is not psychic, it may seem that one who has such abilities is superhuman; but in comparison to knowing all that exists in all worlds, all realms, all dimensions, and at all times, a psychic's powers are minuscule.

Ask a psychic what they know. Some may tell you they can read the minds of others. Some may say they can see past lives, others may say they can see into the future. But can they read the minds of all beings in all realms, and can they see all things that have happened everywhere throughout space and time? Do they even know if beings exist on other planets, and if so, can they describe them? Whatever a psychic may claim to know is still limited. Someone approached me at a lecture in Taiwan and he claimed that he could communicate with beings from another planet. I asked if he would be sharing any of their knowledge with us, and he said no, that he was here to transmit what I said to them. I asked if he was going to translate my lecture, and he said it was not necessary because they understood our language. I suppose he was some sort of channel. So, is this man legitimate, or is he legitimately crazy? Regardless, his powers were rather limited. I know this because he did not even understand what I said during the lecture. A psychic's powers are limited because the person's ego is still present. Scientists say that we only use about ten percent of our brain's capacity. Perhaps a psychic uses twelve or fifteen percent. But even if we use one hundred percent of our brain's capacity, we are still limited if we have an ego that is attached to it. Even if there existed a truly great and wise philosopher king who transformed the lives of all humans on this planet, this person's power would still be limited to planet Earth. Only when there is no longer a self is it possible to have limitless comprehension.

As I said in a previous talk, one of the goals of intense practice is to make our minds -- our egos -- as well as the environment smaller and smaller. The smaller the ego, the smaller the obstructions it will face. Conversely, the bigger the ego, the greater the obstructions. We witness this in daily life all the time. We often envy the simplicity of innocent children and people who seem to be content with very little, yet we strive to be like people who have power, money, stature and responsibility. We do this despite knowing that with more material wealth and power comes more responsibilities and problems.

In our practice we do not want our egos to become bigger, so we must check ourselves. When you seem to be making progress with your method, how does it make you feel? Do you become proud and excited? Do you think, "I am becoming a great meditator." If you use your insights for your own benefit, then your powers will be limited. You must check yourself constantly, "Are my motives selfish or are they altruistic?"

Ch'an practitioners want to cultivate the attitude of practicing and doing everything for other sentient beings. It is what is meant by developing bodhi mind. Such an attitude is often considered antagonistic to the Western ideal of striving to become better and to develop a strong sense of self. Everywhere in the United States these days people are talking about empowerment and building self esteem and confidence. Bookshelves are lined with self-help books, people listen to tapes, go to lectures, attend workshops, and so on. The logic is sound: "If we cannot even help ourselves, if we ourselves are weak, scattered, insecure, disempowered and neurotic, how can we begin to help others?"

We must remember that it is a goal of practice to reduce the size of the ego until it disappears. But it is the ego which decides to do this. We always start from the position of a self-centered ego. When I teach beginners to meditate, I speak of Buddhist cultivation as progressing from a small, scattered self to a concentrated, small self, and then further to large, universal self and ultimately to no-self. Notice that on the way to no-self, we must strengthen and consolidate our egos. A side benefit of practice is that we do indeed become more secure, clearer and confident.

Nonetheless, though we start from the position of self in order to move toward no-self, it is for the benefit of other sentient beings that we do so. This is the Mahayana ideal. It is why the first of the four Bodhisattva Vows is to help others and the last is to attain supreme enlightenment. Hence, we should always have sentient beings in the forefront of our actions and intentions. Also, it is often true that our own vexations are lessened when we devote our time and energy to helping others.

I see that some of you are still skeptical. You probably think it is ridiculous to believe that you can help even a small number of people, let alone innumerable sentient beings. Perhaps so, but you must start somewhere. You do not have to be perfect to help others. Suppose a group of children want to climb over a high wall, but none of them can do it on his or her own. One of them decides to get down on her hands and knees so that the others can boost themselves over the wall. The one on the bottom can be you. It does not always take superior intelligence, skill, or strength to help others. No matter how limited you may think you are, you can always help others. All it takes is the intention to do so.

Are you willing to be the stool for other people to stand on, or will your pride and ego suffer too much adopting such a role? Perhaps you want someone else to get down on his knees so you can get over the wall. If that is the case, we will change the first vow to, "I vow to have innumerable sentient beings help me." You will never experience no-self with an attitude like this. Yes, you may gain some power from the practice, but it will be limited, and I guarantee your vexations will not lessen. In fact, you will create even larger obstructions and greater vexations. Do you want to be a bully and force someone else to help you over the wall? What does that get you? So you have used other people in order to achieve your goal, but what is a wall in comparison to climbing to the stars. The truth is that the vision of self-serving people is usually as limited as their powers and abilities.

When you do not place importance on your self, everything becomes much smoother and easier. Ultimately, when you reach the stage of no-self, then there will be no obstructions whatsoever. There will be no limit to what you can do. Because you have no self, there is no particular place in which you reside. Hence, you are in all places at once. This is freedom without boundaries.

Right now your situation is akin to being in a locked house with shuttered windows. As you practice, you begin to open doors and windows to let in more light, but still you are quite limited. Later, you step outside of the house and are awed by the expansiveness of your newly-developed vision. But you are still limited because you can only see up and outward. For the most part, the Earth blocks your view. So, you continue to practice until you transcend the Earth, and, like an astronaut, you have an unobstructed view of the heavens. Even at this point your vision is still limited because you are a person. There is just so much that you can do and see when you are limited to what you believe to be the self. Ultimately, you must leave your self behind.

We begin with the small self; namely, you who sits in a particular place and works hard on a method of practice. Eventually, your mind and your method will become smaller and smaller until they disappear. Today, during interview, someone thought they had achieved such a state of absorption. He said that, after working diligently for several sitting periods, his energy left him, and he felt nothing, or something that he described as blankness. I told him that this was not a case of mind and method disappearing. His experience could be better described as sitting in a ghost's cave on a black mountain. Blankness is similar to being asleep or unconscious. If that was all it took to experience enlightenment, my job would be much easier. I would just walk behind each one of you and knock you unconscious with a big stick.

It is said that, upon attaining great enlightenment, the Buddha was able to see worlds as innumerable as the grains of sand in the Ganges River, and know everything about every sentient being in those worlds from the beginningless past to the endless future. That is not to say we would gain such all-knowing insight if we were to experience no-self. Experiencing no-self does not automatically make one a Buddha. Like the Buddha, we may have been enlightened to the principle; but, unlike the Buddha, we have not accumulated merit from countless lifetimes of practice and study. By principle I mean those truths and realities which underlie all people, all things, all dharmas.

Recently, I was the subject of an interview at a Taiwanese radio station. Instead of talking about Buddhism, I was asked questions about love, marriage, family, children and parents. The interviewer was pleased with, though somewhat surprised by, my answers. He asked, "Shih-fu, I am curious. How is it that you know so much about matters of marriage, love relationships and family when you yourself left home long ago to become a monk?"

I answered, "I base my answers on my experience and knowledge of the principles that underlie all things. I may not have personal experience with a lover or marriage, but the principles that underlie all relationships -- all phenomena -- are the same.

When you arrive at the place of no people and no seeing, then you too will know how to deal with situations based on your experience of principle. The reason why people have so many problems and so much confusion is because they rely on their limited, self-centered views. It is because the ego attaches to gain and loss. When there is nothing to gain or lose, matters become much simpler. Imagine that you are extremely wealthy, and now suppose I gave you a choice: you can keep one of two things, either all your material wealth or the person you love most. Which means more to you, love or money? Regardless of which choice you make, you will suffer because there is a self involved. It does not matter if you are an ordinary person or someone blessed with psychic powers, your dilemma will be the same. If, however, no self is involved, then the matter is simple. You can keep them both or lose them both because there is no self which attaches to gain or loss. You simply act in accordance with causes and conditions as they arise. You do what is to be done from one moment to the next; but, because there is no self involved, you suffer no vexations.

This example, however, is something none of us has to face at the present time. Before we can make our minds and the environment disappear, we must stop our minds from entertaining wandering thoughts. We do what must be done in this moment.

The Four Noble Truths

by Master Sheng-yen

This is the first of four Sunday afternoon talks by Master Sheng-yen on the Four Noble Truths, at the Chan Meditation Center, New York, between November 1 and November 22, 1998. The talks were translated live by Ven. Guo-gu Shi, transcribed from tape by Bruce Rickenbacher, and edited by Ernest Heau, with assistance from Lindley Hanlon. Endnotes were added by Ernest Heau.

Please click here for the article

Spiritual Practice in Hung-Chou Chan

by Dale S. Wright

Dale Wright is Professor of Religious Studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. Professor Wright is the author of the recently published book Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism

The origins and history of Ch'an Buddhism as we know it today owe a great deal to the development that took place in the 8th and 9th centuries CE in a remote and rural section of South-central China called "Hung-chou," today Northern Chiang-si province and still largely rural. Indeed, as contemporary China opens itself to the outside world, visitors interested in the "golden age" of Ch'an are beginning to explore the temple ruins that are still to be found throughout the countryside in this region. There are excellent reasons for our curiosity. For it was here that a radical style of Ch'an spiritual practice developed that has defined this tradition since that time. The founding figure of this time and place was the renown Ma-tsu Tao-i (709-788), whose style of spiritual practice constitutes an innovative break with the earlier Ch'an tradition as we see it, for example, in the Ch'an of "East Mountain" monastery, or of Shen-hsiu and Shenhui, or in the voluminous Ch'an documents found at Tun-huang. This reorientation in style of practice is further developed in Ma-tsu's successors, such prominent figures as Pai-chang Huaihai, Huang-po Hsi-yun, and Lin-chi I-hsuan. The influence of these great masters had a profound impact on the Ch'an Buddhism of the Sung dynasty (960-1260), the development of this tradition in Korea and Japan, and on us in the west today. So, what is this style of spiritual practice?

The word Ch'an means meditation, and that was no doubt the primary practice as well as descriptive characteristic of early Ch'an. Meditation had from the beginning been one dimension of Buddhist practice, at least in principle if not in actuality. The early Ch'an monks in China were among a wide class of monks, including many Tien-tai monks, who accorded meditation a central place among practices. Without discarding meditation altogether, Hung-chou Ch'an seems to have once again shifted the focus of concern away from this contemplative practice. Without question, meditation continued to have a role in their practice. But more often than recommending it, the literature of Hung-chou Ch'an criticizes the practice of meditation, or more precisely, it criticizes the attitude or understanding in terms of which meditation was being practiced.

A famous story in one biography of Ma-tsu's teacher, Nan-yueh Huai-jang, in the Transmission of the Lamp, has traditionally been taken as the most powerful expression of this point. Ma-tsu, a student eager for spiritual progress, sat long hours in meditation. Observing his absorption one day, his teacher asked the obvious question, "What is the great virtue of sitting in meditation?" Ma-tsu replied, "Accomplishing Buddhahood!" The teacher then picked up a tile and began to rub it on a stone. Ma-tsu asked, "What are you doing?" "Making a mirror" replied the teacher. Ma-tsu asked again, "How is it possible to obtain a mirror by rubbing a tile?" The story ends with Huai-jang's rhetorical question, "How is it possible to obtain Buddhahood by sitting in meditation?"

That it would indeed bring about that goal was an assumption of early Ch'an. But at least by Ma-tsu's time some teachers began to conclude that the understanding supporting this practice had the effect of precluding the very realization to which it was directed. What practice aimed at a goal of attainment presupposes is that human beings lack something fundamental, that there is something that is attainable from someplace else. But this is just what the Hung-chou masters denied: "Since you are already fundamentally complete, don't add on spurious practices".

One of the most common Hung-chou sayings provides the rationale for this shift of understanding concerning the practice of meditation or any other practice: "This very mind is Buddha!" What Ma-tsu and others communicated through this saying is that what seems to be the most remote, transcendental goal is, paradoxically, nearest to us. Hung-chou monks, like other Buddhists before them, spoke of enlightenment as a "return," a return to and encounter with one's own deepest nature. This "original nature," a spontaneous attunement to the world, is what is most easily overlooked in the act of striving for a remote goal. Therefore, Huang-po, Pai-chang's most celebrated student, responds to the question -- How does one bring about enlightened mind? -- in the following way:

"Enlightenment is not something to be attained. If right now you bring forth this 'non-attaining' mind, steadfastly not obtaining anything, then this is enlightened mind. Enlightenment is not a place to reside. For this reason there is nothing attainable. Therefore, [the Buddha] said: 'When I was still in the realm of Dipamkara Buddha, there was not the slightest thing attainable'."

The act of striving is itself what creates the distance or separation that striving seeks to overcome. A "dualism" separating the practitioner from the goal of practice was the presupposed background that had supported not only the practice of meditation but also the entirety of Buddhist practice. Yet even striving could not be rejected in a dualistic way; somehow the appropriate posture was beyond both extremes, striving and its negation. Thus, The Extensive Record of Pai-chang claims: 

A Buddha is a person who does not seek. If you seek this you spoil it. The principle is one of non-seeking. Seek it and it is lost. If one holds onto non-seeking, this is still the same as seeking.

The admonition not to seek, difficult indeed in an institution centered on spiritual quest, functioned to direct the practitioner to what is already here, that is, to the "ordinary" that one previously hoped to transcend. This redirection of attention to the "ordinary" and the "everyday" is perhaps the most characteristic theme of Hung-chou Ch'an. For them, "Everyday mind is the Way." Meditation, therefore, need not be a special activity requiring its own time, setting, and posture. Every moment of life, "sitting, standing, or lying down," ought to be seen as a primordial manifestation of Buddha-nature. This reorientation to the ordinary enabled a dramatic transformation of Ch'an practice -- any thing could be considered a "practice" if by practice one means, not one activity among others that one does toward a pregiven goal, but just what one does. According to Tsung-mi's more traditional point of view this went too far, even to the point of regarding "the moving of a muscle or the blinking of an eye" as a sign of Buddha-nature. A sanctification of the ordinary meant that, to be a Buddhist, one need not speak in a classical language; ordinary, colloquial language was even closer to the fundamental attunement within which one dwells by birthright anyway. The manual labor that at least partially supported the Hung-chou monasteries could likewise be taken, not as something menial and base, but as a practice expressing one's deepest nature. "Chopping wood and carrying water," the most ordinary of T'ang dynasty tasks, were to be seen as the extraordinary Way itself. Given this reversal of Buddhist priorities, the presumptuous young monk, Lin-chi, could say that what his teacher, Huang-po, had to transmit to him was "not much".

That the extra-ordinary was to be found nowhere except within the ordinary was perhaps the most important principle in T'ang dynasty Buddhist thought generally, and had therefore been formulated in various theoretical ways before Ma-tsu's time. What the Hung-chou masters contributed to this principle was twofold: first, a realization that the principle had the effect of undermining the theoretical (and dualistic) formalism within which it was established, and second, a way of integrating the principle into authentic daily life.

Integrating Ch'an thought and realization into daily life required not only a new way of acting, but also a new way of speaking. No practice so distinctly characterizes Hung-chou Ch'an as its discursive practice. In examining the kinds of rhetoric found in the literary traditions of Hung-chou Ch'an, we need to reflect briefly on our sources. There are numerous texts that transmit this kind of Ch'an to us. They consist not in the writings of Hung-chou masters but in collections of purported "sayings" which circulated among monks and lay people of the area. These include segments of lectures, question and answer sessions, uncontextualized sayings, and descriptions of actions -- especially encounters between Ch'an masters -- all of which were the subject of great excitement and oral discussion. Sometimes later -- often centuries later -- these sayings were gathered into manuscript form, then edited and printed as the Ch'an literature that we have available to us today.

The Hung-chou masters had ideological reasons for not writing- they rejected the kinds of formal study that characterized Buddhist practice up until their time. Following Bodhidharma's criticism of "dependence on words and letters," they sought a mode of being free from the kinds of closure and rigidity that language and texts suggested to them. They tended to stress their difference from earlier traditions in order to set out a new identity for practicing monks. In retrospect, we can see that these differences, while real, were not as great as Hung-chou rhetoric claimed. The language of Pai-chang and Huang-po, for instance, is laced with references to Buddhist sutras; clearly, they were accustomed to closing an argument with a sutra quotation, thereby substantiating the point, as was the practice in Buddhist discourse. Sometimes, sayings recorded as the language of the master were actually segments from sutras or other texts. Nevertheless, a movement away from dependence on sutras began to take place in Hung-chou Ch'an. The colloquial language of these monks was also a significant departure from the formal language of the earlier tradition.

Though a great deal of Hung-chou rhetoric is anti-study, anti-text, and anti-language, it would be a mistake on our part to read this "language" literally, without recognizing the fundamental role that study, text, and language did in fact play in Hung-chou Ch'an. Reading, for example, continued to be an important practice, although what Hung-chou monks read and how they read underwent transformation. The way of reading shifted from focus on the objective content of sutras to personal, experiential appropriation by the reader, while what they read gradually shifted from sutras to accounts of words and actions of Ch'an masters. There was also a greater emphasis on spoken discourse, on lectures, question and answer sessions, and what came to be known as encounter dialogues. But whenever spoken discourse seems important, it inevitably gets written down, especially in a society as thoroughly literate as China had become. On this basis a new genre of Buddhist literature emerged in Hung-chou Ch'an, the "Discourse Record" texts. So eager were these monks to appropriate the language of their masters and other renowned teachers of Ch'an that they kept personal notebooks recording significant sayings and events.

These sayings and descriptions of events circulated by word of mouth, first among co-practitioners and then more broadly, until in a variety of versions they were known all over China. In these later and more articulate versions, they eventually became the sacred texts of Ch'an. For some monks at least, they replaced the sutras as the core of their reading practice.

These "sayings," however, like the words of sutras, were thought to be hindrances to spirituality if they were taken as objects of knowledge, or as somehow sufficient in themselves. Sayings indicated, hinted at, or evoked, elicited, something beyond themselves, which was clearly unattainable through direct reference. They referred to no spiritual object at all but rather, indirectly, to a disclosure of something that was prior to all conceptualization. In this context, language and its set of conceptual categories seemed to run aground. What they sought to encounter was beyond all categories, and even beyond their negation; it always stood in the background of focal awareness even when the spiritually adept sought to grasp it. This realization brought the Hung-chou masters to deny their own religious categories -- Buddha, Mind, and so on -- and then, even further, to deny that negation. Thus, Pai-chang claims: "The 'nature' of fundamental existence cannot be specified in language. Originally it is neither ordinary nor sacred. Nor is it defiled or pure. And it is neither empty nor existent, neither good nor evil". Regarding references to what is revealed in spiritual awareness as dangerous or at least misleading, more often than not texts show greater concern with the stance or posture required for the disclosure to occur than they do with its "source" or referent. "When affirmation and negation, like and dislike, the principled and unprincipled, and all knowing and feeling are exhausted, unable to entangle you, then there is free spontaneity in all situations".

The detachment called for in this passage is perhaps the primary element in Hung-chou spirituality or, at least, a prerequisite to other elements. Letting go of habitual categories and forms of awareness was essential to the process of opening up a dimension within which deeper awareness might be disclosed. What obstructs this "deeper awareness" or "original nature" is the search for security through fixation and enclosure. Seeking to effect release and freedom by calling attention to forms of human bondage, Hung-chou rhetoric employs the following verbal metaphors: holding on, grasping, fixating, obstructing, losing and seeking, separating, differentiating, blocking and screening ourselves off from more extensive attunement. Detachment requires a "letting go" and "release," not of things so much as of the kind of self-understanding that holds and grasps at things, unaware of the more primordial background within which both self and things have their existence. Thus, after establishing "detachment as the fundamental principle" Huang-po claims that one who is "free" is not "separate from all affairs". That freedom is not an escape from things or affairs takes us back to the Hung-chou concern for the "ordinary." Freedom, Buddhahood, is available nowhere else but here, within the "everyday." Thus it is not so much a matter of release from our current situation as it is an awakening to that situation, as well as a deep sense of being situated or contextualized within a larger, encompassing whole.

Although reflexivity (reflecting back on oneself) is sometimes an element in this reorientation, Hung-chou spirituality does not consist in focus on the self, or subjectivity, but instead seeks to discover a ground of experience and action more primordial than subjectivity. On this point Hung-chou Ch'an can be seen to be in continuity with the basic Buddhist concept of "no-self." Although the precise sense in which there is "no-self" can, and indeed did, change, these monks and masters understood themselves to stand in a tradition of spirituality that called them into a dimension that is "presubjective" -- prior to and deeper than the separation of self and world, subject and object. Thus in continuity with the world, yet without losing uniqueness and individuality (indeed enhancing it), the practice of Hung-chou Ch'an was thought to enable an open involvement in and responsiveness to the world. The character of this responsiveness was thus seen in radical opposition to the narrow and enclosed disposition that accompanies self-centeredness.

Polarization of self and world gives way to a reciprocity between them, or, in Huang-po's words, a "mutual correspondence". Living within such correspondence meant that the motivation for action derived from a source beyond the willfulness of personal subjectivity. Freedom of movement, therefore, meant something quite different from the liberty to move as one desires. On the contrary, it meant a freedom from the tyranny of those desires such that one could move in accordance with, and thus be moved by, the world around one. This freedom and spontaneity of speech and action became the hallmark of Hung-chou spintuality, which now, at the turn of the millennium, continue to reverberate around the world.

Retreat Report

by A.B.

Sorting Out My Belongings
I have been practicing Silent Illumination for nine years on retreats in Wales (UK) led by John Crook, and at home in England. The Silent Illumination retreat was my seventh Chan retreat. It was the fulfillment of a dream to attend a retreat led by Master Sheng-yen. Previously, on his visits to Wales, I had been looking after our children so that my husband could attend, or we'd been away on holiday. I had thought of attending a retreat in Queens on several occasions, so when David read about this retreat in New York State he suggested to me that I might like to go. It didn't take long for the idea to dawn that we might attend together, since David's parents had already offered to look after our daughter if we wanted a "holiday". We decided to take them up on their offer and applied for the retreat. I was quietly overjoyed to receive the acceptance letter some weeks later.

The form of this retreat turned out to be almost exactly what I was used to in Wales, the differences being the length of each meditation period, (half again as long) and the method we were taught, which involved keeping the eyes closed.

It was easy to forget which country I was in. The landscape was similar to parts of England. except that the maple and oak trees had such huge leaves. The granite rocks bordering the river were reminiscent of Scotland or Dartmoor. The beauty of the lake took my breath away on our first evening's walk there. Later, the lake was to freeze over with a thin patchwork of ice, but on that first evening the reflections exactly mirrored the delicate silhouettes of newly bared branches against the dying light.

The buildings of the retreat center blended so perfectly with their surrounding trees and undulating grassland that at times, in the light of dawn, or by star and moonlight, they reminded me of the nineteenth century prints of Hiroshige, or of the more recent tree paintings of Mondrian; yet the food and culture were Chinese. If this was the USA, it wasn't anything like my expectations.

Because in England it would have been nine a.m., I found no difficulty in rising at four, but from the start, because of jet lag and a general lack of sleep, I found that in the evening it was almost impossible to stay awake. The progressive relaxation method was not difficult to do. I had been taught a similar method by a yoga teacher many years before, and had for years used her words, "Let your eyeballs shrink from their sockets, let your hairline recede etc., as a relaxation method if I had difficulty sleeping. It was a relief to close my itchy eyelids during meditation. Daytime drowsiness was an initial problem, but Shifu instructed us to open our eyes if drowsy and I occasionally found this useful.

By the evening of the first day I felt half dead with tiredness. I heard only the first half of the evening talk. The meditation period following this was one in which thought had practically ceased through my need for sleep. There was a heavy weight inside my head, which I could barely keep upright. My bottom was sore against the hardness of my cushion, one that I had brought with me, which had always been perfect for sitting periods of up to half an hour. My knees and ankles were in agony. In my mind was one unmoving concept: not a thought, not a word even, just the knowledge of a need, for BED, that was so great that my whole body and brain ached for it. The instruction to "massage and sit again" felt like the last straw! I decided to kneel astride the cushion to relieve my aching body, and as I settled down, eyes closed to begin with, and with the pain gone, even the concept of 'bed' disappeared. I found my eyes opening slowly and resting on the cushion of the participant in front of me. It had a life of its own, and seemed to be shimmering with energy. The floorboards in front of me, between the rows of meditators, stretched away either side into infinity, with an energy that was the same as that seen in the cushion. Words from the poem came into my mind, "IT APPEARS BEFORE YOU." Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Shifu walk silently along in front of the row of meditators in front of me. He stopped briefly to whisper something to one of them before walking on, and I saw that his body had a weightless quality and was shimmering. I realized that my own body had disappeared. As I lay in bed I felt like continuing the meditation into the night, but then remembered Shifu's instruction, "Tell yourself to go to sleep now. This I did, and slept the maximum amount possible.

I had a slight problem the following morning with attachment to this experience. I knew from similar experiences on past retreats that such things are never repeated, and that it is a mistake to even desire a particular state of mind to return, but it was difficult to forget. In my interview I asked Guo-yuan Shi whether it was necessary to try to forget good experiences. His reply was, "Let it fall naturally away," and he added that this was true of both good and bad experiences. "You will never have another experience the same, and it is necessary to move on." I sensed a feeling of freedom in the truth of these words, and was able to "let it fall."

Wandering thoughts were not a problem at all during this retreat, which is unusual for me. However, I became aware of an emotional attachment to the music of the services, particularly to the tunes I knew less well. Since first hearing them, I have always loved the morning and evening Chan services, both the words and the music, and the Chinese words no less than the English. On a slow, frosty morning's walk to the riverside, I found that I was breathing the rhythm of these tunes as I walked; afterwards, in meditation, this subtle kind of 'thinking' continued, though it was not through conscious effort. It was simply there. Most of my life I have some tune or other habitually "stuck in my head", (as my daughter used to say!) I once heard John Crook describe such a habit as "an evasion." Could I be evading silence unconsciously? And why did my mind do the opposite of what I really wanted it to do? I was going to have to make a deliberate effort to reverse it. On becoming conscious of this and aware that I needed to change, a significant step in the right direction had been taken.

In my second interview, I asked Shifu about this problem. His reply was that it was good that I was aware of my breathing, breathing being part of the body, and that I should consider this as having reached the first stage of silent illumination. That he completely ignored my concern with tunes showed me the possibility that I could ignore them too. There were times during the remainder of the retreat when I did sometimes manage to have a tune-free mind, and the silence then was something extraordinary. Dropping whatever tune had taken over became increasingly possible, but it was something that I never ceased to have to work at... and still work at now.

During our afternoon walking meditation, Shifu sat motionless, center stage. I glanced at him only once, and had the immediate impression of a slowly melting snowman, wrapped up in hat and scarf, so still, so small, almost not there at all. Walking to the Chan hall before dawn, in temperatures well below freezing, I felt like I had as a child on receiving a glittery Christmas card for the first time: the sense of wonder, as a million diamonds littered the ground and sparkled with every step. Above, the "river of stars." In the pale green dawn, before breakfast, seeing the crescent moon, like a smile in the sky, together with a nearby bright star, brought tears to my eyes.

My job was after lunch, so most mornings during the work period I walked over the frozen field as the sun rose, causing blue shadows to fall in the pale orange light. I marveled at the intricate beauty of frosted grass and leaves crunching under my feet like glass Christmas decorations. The low angle of the sun brought every detail of the frozen ground into sharp relief. The river on the fifth morning, in temperatures of 20F, was steaming in the dappled shade. I felt slightly guilty that I had this free time; I could see that my husband's job took up both work periods. So I made the best use of it that I could, keeping my eyes fairly close to the ground, noticing every movement and breath that I took, and noticing the stillness and silence that sudden stops, backward steps and changes in direction revealed.

In the first meditation period of the fifth day there was a brief arising of Bodhi mind. This followed a talk on the importance of vows, diligence and having faith in the method, during which I felt a greater need to look at the floor, to be less distracted. Feelings of gratitude also arose, particularly toward John Crook, without whose efforts I would probably never have encountered Chan, and would not, therefore, have been sitting there. At this point, I actually felt John to be present in the room. During the morning service I was aware of feelings of compassion, particularly toward those who were sitting out and not participating for reasons unknown to me.

Something strange happened during the afternoon. I sat with no detectable thought in my mind, when suddenly words appeared as if being spoken to me, "WHO'S BIRTHDAY IS IT?" Completely surprised by this, I began to work out what day it was, and realized it was my son's twenty-second birthday. I hadn't given a single thought to this since leaving England! Had I been asking myself the question, I would have asked, "I wonder when Daniel's birthday is?" or, "What day is it today?" not, "Who's birthday is it?"

At the end of day five, Shifu gave a very helpful reprimand for our lack of concentrated effort. His final words, "FOCUS. FOCUS." stayed with me throughout the night, and until the retreat ended... and have been helpful ever since. His talk the next morning was on the necessity of cultivating feelings of repentance and shame for good practice. This made good sense. After the talk, there was a renewal of effort and resolve, and an almost tangible calm energy in the hall. Even those with coughs and colds were silent. On two separate occasions in the morning, I briefly saw a vision of a silhouetted, bare-branched tree, symmetrical in shape, stretching upwards into the sky.

Considering that by this stage I had very little going on in my mind to disturb me, I was surprised by my ego's brief appearance after lunch, when I found another participant doing 'my' job, and I realized I still had attachments. I would never have believed I could get attached to rinsing dishes! I dried them instead.

At the end of retreats I never look forward to the breaking of silence, but once it is broken I welcome the opportunity to talk to people whom I feel I have come to know quite well without words. The discussion on the last evening helped to break us in gently to the ending of silence after breakfast the next day. However, the hard work, over six days, of stilling the mind had had a profound effect. In the afternoon, while waiting for our taxi to arrive, I walked down the steps and out over the warm, unfrozen grass. Several hours of talk and activity fell away as the silent world opened out before me. It was alive and singing -- in the air, the trees, the space -- and in me. Up to the lake I walked, as a totally relaxed body -- part of my environment completely -- slow, unthinking, still. I felt complete in my surroundings, and strangely, this feeling was far more obvious AFTER the socializing than it had been before the retreat ended, when I had never broken from it. It was as if, as an electrical gadget that had become detached from its source of electricity, I was plugging myself in again to the vastness of the Universe. Would I ever be so still and silent again -- so much in unity with my environment?

Unpacking my luggage at home, walking about the house, at a particular moment, as I passed through the hallway, the meaning of the opening words of the evening service were clearly understood:

To know all the Buddhas
Of the past, present and future
Perceive that Dharmadhatu nature
is all created by the mind.

No one has ever explained to me what Dharmadhatu nature is, but as I sorted out my belongings, I knew exactly what it meant.

Silent Illumination

by Harry Miller

It is a frame of mind
It is a frame in the mind
Awareness aware of awareness

Walking beyond the meditation hall
A bright night - I look around for a streetlight
But it is the two-days-from-full

Moon, bright cream
Swamps the landscape
Lit with shadows

I pass an oak
Our shadows cross on the gray grain road
No motion

One tree begins to move and walks
On the brightest point in the sky
The Man in the Moon

An etching of what is hidden
Form and character we invent
From absence

Ancients saw moonlight
But did they know it was a reflection?
The sun the source? And the sun's source?

Two days later I walk out - expecting
A perfect bright circle in the sky
But the overcast night is uniform

Leaves left on only one tree
and shaken in the wind like a gloved hand
Cling to safety or longing for release?

Two leaves float by
One half dry, the other submerged and quivering
As if bowed by a cellist

By day in the water
Trees are upside down
Agitated with sun sparks

Someone on the opposite shore
Dressed in blue and white
Bends like a butterfly with folded wings

I open, then shut my eyes
Orange and red lanterns on a string
Burn and fade to the edge of my eyelids

Calm water
Mirrors the sun, but the bottom is dark
A round edge of stone visible


Chinese New Year Celebration at the Chan Center

The Year of the Dragon was ushered in at the Chan Meditation Center on Sunday, February 6, 2000 with recitation of the Heart Sutra and a talk and blessing by Master Jen Chen. Following the offering to the sangha and the midday offering, all enjoyed a superb vegetarian lunch prepared and served by many volunteers, coordinated by Judy Chen. The highlight of the day was a screening of a documentary film on Master Sheng-yen's life called "Looking Backward and Forward: Spreading Dharma in the West," compiled by Kevin Chen at the Chan Center.

Following the screening, members of the Buddhist Youth Group ushered in the Year of the Dragon entertainment program with their Dharma Dragon Buddhadrama, complete with a 30-foot long high-tech dragon created and paraded by members of the group under
the direction of Lindley Hanlon. An improvised duet for voice (Lindley Hanlon) and erhu (Chen Ping), a flute solo and duet (Jennie Lin and Yilien Hsu), a performance by the Dharma Drum Mountain Choir (directed by Jane Huang), guest performances by a Chinese Folk Music ensemble, and a tenor solo by Huo Lei completed the program. Guo-yuan Fa Shi closed the day by offering gratitude and guidance in the Dharma to all participating in the day's festivities. Special thanks went to Sylvie Sung and the sangha members for their great efforts and success in organizing this festive beginning of the New Year.

The Dharma Dragon Visits the Children's Museum of Manhattan

On Saturday, February 26, 2000 The Dharma Dragon participated in the New York City Neighborhood Festival at the Children's Museum of Manhattan at 212 West 83rd Street. Members of the Buddhist Youth group paraded the Dragon through the museum and presented their Dharma Dragon Drama live to an audience at the Time Warner Media Center Television Studio at the museum. The group celebrated with a dinner at Ernie's and attended a screening of the Tibetan film The Cup at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema. Next year the Dharma Dragon will be featured at the Queen's Museum of Art Chinese New Year Celebration. Many thanks go to Jane Chen, youth group organizer, Agnes Ho, Kathleen Feng, and Lindley Hanlon for their efforts in organizing the event.

Chinese New Year in the Catskill
by Carolyn Hansen

Golden ornaments, highlighted with red, hung from ceilings above the old farmhouse floor and framed windows showing snow-covered grounds. Happy guests clustered inside, each choosing a unique Chinese-style hand-painted card to which was added their Chinese name.

Photos of Shifu, of retreats and ceremonies, sitting with the Dalai Lama and with Thich Nhat Hanh matted on red and yellow were placed above the tables of food and beverages. Tablecloths, napkins and plates in red, yellow and floral designs and crepe paper of red and yellow finished the cheerful decorations. Chinese sweets were placed next to Western sweets. Salty snacks and a large fresh vegetable platter also attracted the guests who enjoyed gold colored fruit punch.

Young children with sparkling barrettes, mingled with town officials and friends. Government officials from the Town of Shawangunk, including the Town Supervisor, Town Clerk, Superintendent of Highways and two members of the Town Council attended along with the Pine Bush Postmaster, a woman. Most guests brought spouses, friends and children. The Main Contractor on the renovations of the Dharma Drum Retreat Center, and the construction supervisor who assists her, as well as owners of some of the companies helping with construction or maintenance also came. With them were old friends and new from our neighbors on Quannacut Road and nearby towns.

After all gathered, Retreat Center Director, Carolyn Hansen, invited the Town Supervisor to speak. He expressed his and the town's good will towards the Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association and the Dharma Drum Retreat Center. Carolyn Pu Sa, then introduced the Shawangunk volunteers. Guo Zhen Pu Sa, sat by a lovely display of brushes. She added the calligraphy of a Chinese name to each hand painted card chosen by a guest from the lovely selection she prepared in advance. Shlomo Shafir from Israel and Ryszard Hutt from Poland were also acknowledged. From Queens, Jeffery Kung came for the day.

She then introduced the Abbott, Guo yuan Fa Shi, who gave a thoughtful and warm welcome address. Next, the guests watched a new English language video of Shifu's work in North America.

Athletic brothers, Christopher and Donald Chuang displayed amazing skill with Chinese Yo Yo's. Beautiful sisters, Mindie and Cindie Wu gracefully preformed a Chinese fan dance. The children were warmly applauded as was Mr. Jau fang Wu who drove two hours each way that day to bring them from Connecticut to the Retreat Center.

Guests mingling after the performances received red envelopes containing Shifu's New Year's advice in golden calligraphy on a red card with an English translation:

"Be down to earth,

With a broad mind.
Work in a balanced way, 
With complete understanding."

As the party was winding down, the editor of a near-by newspaper, took pictures for an article about the fete.

Smiling guests, with hand painted cards and red envelopes in their pockets went home in a white winter world, later sending warm thank-you cards to let us know this had been a special day.

Special Thanks to the Chinese New Year Volunteers

Main Facilitator: Guo-shen Fa Shi
Event coordinator: Sylvie Sun
Kitchen facilitator: Guo-huan
Kitchen coordinator: Judy Chen
Receptionist coordinator (for Westeners): Anselma Rodriguez
(For Chinese): Wendy Cheng & Lee Shu-Jen
Publication coordinator: Guo-chung
Entertainment coordinator: Jane Huang
Art Design: Li Si Hey & Susana Huang
Filming: Kevin Hsieh & Li Ping
Audio: Ho Chia Ching
Publicity & PR: Olivia Li, Estelle and Lindley Hanlon
Child Care: Chang Hwa Tai
Cleaning: Jer Chang Chow
Computer support: Alice Chen
Treasurer: Zhang Jie
Accounting: Judy Chou
MC: Paul Li & Lindley Hanlon
Traffic: John Huang & Chieu-hwa
Medical: Hoo Bo Gee
Facility set up: David Ngo

Guo-Yuan Fa Shi on Channel 13

On January 28, Guo-yuan Fa Shi was invited to Channel 13, in New York, for an interview. Channel 13 is a well-known station of the Public Broadcasting Service in America, specializing in the production and broadcast of educational, cultural and socially enriching programs.

The programs aired on Channel 13 are commonly used by hundreds of other public broadcast stations in the U.S. and in various academic institutions. The program involving Guo-yuan Fa Shi was a joint venture of PBS with the New York Museum of Natural History, focusing on the question of "how did the universe begin?"

Various religious organizations' representatives were invited to speak on this topic from their own points of view.

Guo-yuan Fa Shi explained that Buddha taught us not to vainly pursue the answer to moot questions like "Where did the earth and human kind come from?" Human kind is already too immersed in vexation and suffering for us to focus on pursuing such a meaningless metaphysical question. He also gave a supporting example from the sutras: "If a person got hit by an arrow, what that person should do first is remove the arrow and cure the wound, instead of asking obtuse questions like 'where did the arrow come from?' or 'why was the arrow shot my way?'

He also stated that the origin of the earth and humankind is circuitous, there being neither a starting nor an ending point. Buddhism mainly is to teach people how to solve their own problems and other people's as well, and avoids obsession about metaphysical questions.

After the taping, many people found that Cuo-yuan Fa Shi's witty and eloquent explanation had succinctly delivered Buddhism's point of view. Channel 13 set the broadcast date for the program near the end of April, 2000.

Four Awards in the Dharma Training Program

On December 19th, 1999, Master Shengyen presented four of his students with Certificates of Completion for Part One of the Assistant Meditation Instructor Training Program: David Berman has been a student of Shifu's since 1994. He has been a practitioner of Kung Fu since 1980, and a teacher of Kung Fu for the past 10 years. Lindley Hanlon has been a student of Shifu's since 1995; she is a professor of film at Brooklyn College. Nancy Makso has studied with Shifu since 1978, and has served as Chan Center secretary for the past 20 years. She teaches English at Dolam Middle School in Stamford, Connecticut, and has a 20 year old daughter. Buffe Laffey first started studying with Shifu in 1975, and was one of the founding editors of the Chan Magazine. She has been a Human Factors Engineer in software design for the past ten years. These students earned their certificates by presenting topics of the Beginner's Meditation Class in front of their peers and Guo-yuan Fa Shi, the program advisor, and by passing a written exam on the material. Lindley Hanlon and David Berman already have had experience teaching the Beginner's Meditation Workshop during the past year. The four students continue with Part Two of the apprenticeship, during which, they will gain further experience as instructors of beginning meditation, and will be trained to assist with timekeeping and monitor duties at retreats.

Retreat Center in the Press

In the March 15th issue of the Upstate paper, the Ellenville Press, the Dharma Drum Retreat Center was featured in an article. The article spoke of the Chinese New Year Celebration that was held at the Retreat Center earlier this year. It also gave a brief but, interesting biography of Master Sheng-yen and Carolyn Hansen, the executive director of the Retreat Center. It seems we are a hit with the neighbors in Shawangunk. 


Copyright © 2001
Dharma Drum Mountain