These verses claim that the wisdom derived from the Ch'an experience far
surpasses that of sravakas and pratyekabuddhas. Sravaka translates literally as
"hearer," and originally referred to students of the Buddha. According
to Mahayana Buddhism, however, sravakas refers to students of Buddhism who seek
personal enlightenment through insights gained from penetrating the Four Noble
Truths. Their goal is to enter nirvana and leave forever the cycle of samsara.
In this sense, sravakas are akin to arhats. Pratyekabuddha translates literally
as "solitary enlightened one." It is a term describing one who has
attained enlightenment on one’s own and only for oneself. Such beings have
attained a higher level of sainthood than arhats or sravakas, but they have not
yet attained the complete enlightenment of a Buddha. Pratyekabuddha also
describes beings who have attained enlightenment through an understanding of the
Twelve Links of Conditioned Arising, but who do not live in a world where
Buddhadharma exists. In other words, they discovered enlightenment completely on
In mentioning sravakas and pratyekabuddhas, the author is referring to
Hinayana Buddhism. Literally speaking, Hinayana means "lesser vehicle"
and Mahayana means "greater vehicle." Originally, adherents to the
Mahayana school considered the Hinayana school inferior because they claimed
that Hinayana emphasizes self-liberation as the goal of practice. In contrast,
Mahayana emphasizes the bodhisattva ideal of saving all sentient beings. I do
not wish to debate how these two vehicles of Buddhism differ and compare,
because it is not relevant to our practice. However, I must offer some
background information so that I can better explain these verses.
Buddhism in general speaks of three levels of practice: precepts, samadhi and
wisdom. First, following precepts is a way of practicing Buddhadharma in daily
life. The purpose is to help practitioners reduce their self-centered behavior
and therefore make it easier to practice. Samadhi, or deep concentration, is the
result of practicing meditation methods in a diligent manner. In cultivating the
mind so that it can easily enter and maintain deep levels of samadhi, one's mind
and being will eventually be transformed, so that, ultimately, wisdom will be
Both Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism agree that these three levels of practice
are a natural progression that one experiences when walking the Buddha Path.
Ch'an (which is a Mahayanist school), however, claims that through diligent
practice, one can jump directly from the level of precepts to the experience of
wisdom. In fact, this is the goal of gongan and huatou practice. Therefore,
though methods used by different schools of Buddhism may appear to be identical,
the way in which the methods are used, or the purpose for which they are used,
For instance, the method of counting breaths is commonly used by both
Hinayana and Mahayana practitioners. It is considered one of the five original
methods for halting the mind. Counting breaths is an excellent method for
calming and stabilizing the mind and body and for reducing wandering thoughts.
According to Hinayana philosophy, however, counting breaths is not a powerful
enough method for one to enter samadhi, let alone reveal wisdom. After
practicing one of the five methods for halting the mind, one must then practice
more advanced methods and attain three deeper levels of absorption before
Why, then, do I advocate counting breaths as a method of practice? First,
because it is an excellent method for concentrating the mind. Second, the
purpose of Ch'an practice is not to enter samadhi, but to experience wisdom
directly. According to Hinayana philosophy, wisdom must follow samadhi, but
Ch'an teaches otherwise.
In Ch'an practice, one still counts breaths in order to become more
concentrated, but when one's mind is keenly aware and free of most wandering
thoughts, one is then in a better position to make good use of a gongan or
huatou to give rise to a "great mass of doubt." Further, if this mass
of doubt eventually breaks apart, what is revealed is wisdom. Thus, one is able
to experience wisdom without entering samadhi.
Today, however, is the first day of a seven-day retreat, so it is highly
unlikely that any of you will reach this level of practice tonight. In fact, it
is rare for one to reach it at all, even after several intensive retreats. There
should be no thoughts in your mind of practicing with the intention of laying
the groundwork to use a huatou so that you may eventually give rise to and break
apart a mass of doubt. Thinking such thoughts will only serve to obstruct your
practice. Initially, the purpose of every method is to gather your attention so
that you can better control your mind, that is, to make your mind calm and
stable, so that it does what you want it to do and goes where you want it to go.
It will no longer be wild and scattered. At that point, pain, numbness and
itching will not bother you or draw your attention, and neither will passing
moods, feelings or emotions.
When your mind is under your control, that is the time when gongan and huatou
can be of good use. Gongan are stories about enlightenment experiences of past
masters and patriarchs, or encounters between a master and a disciple. A huatou
is typically a single phrase, such as "Who am I?" The practitioner's
job is to investigate the meaning of the particular gongan or huatou. In terms
of huatou practice, investigation means trying to find the answer to the
question posed. However, there are certain restrictions. One is not allowed to
use one's reason or rely upon Buddhist concepts. Usually, one is told to ignore
whatever arises in the mind, for it will not be the answer. One just continues
to ask the question in a concentrated, earnest manner. Eventually, doubt will
rise, and it will grow until it becomes an all-encompassing mass of doubt.
Typically, a practitioner immersed in a great ball of doubt is oblivious to
everything but the huatou.
Hopefully, at some point, the mass of doubt will explode, but this does not
always happen. Sometimes, one loses energy and the doubt subsides. Investigating
a huatou is like inflating a balloon. The more air you blow into a balloon, the
bigger it becomes, just as doubt will increase with the amount of concentration
energy you apply to the huatou. The hope is to pop the balloon. Sometimes,
however, the balloon springs a leak and all the air flows out. In the same way,
sometimes it is too difficult to maintain the concentrated energy required to
investigate the huatou, and the doubt subsides.
Some people may experience a breakthrough in one seven-day retreat. Others
work on huatou for years before giving rise to the doubt sensation. Ch'an master
Lai-guo [SIC???] worked on a single huatou for years. He was a monk who spent
most of his time traveling from one place to another. Every morning, he would
pack a few provisions in a bag and walk from place to place. If he came upon a
monastery, he would enter and stay for a day or two before moving on. If he
found no shelter, he would sit under a tree. If he was hungry and encountered
people, he would ask for food. If he did not meet anyone, it did not matter. The
only thing that remained constant in Lai-guo's life was his dedication to
investigating the huatou. His indifference to the rest of his life existed
because he was always immersed in a mass of doubt. No matter where he went or
what he did, the doubt surrounded him. This went on for years. Then, one day,
when he took the bag off his shoulder in order to rest, his mass of doubt broke
and he had a deep enlightenment experience.
Some people are in a rush and begin to investigate a huatou before their
minds are concentrated. Using the huatou in this manner will not generate doubt.
Repeating the huatou in this case is more like reciting a mantra or counting
one's breath. In such cases, it would be better to count breaths or recite the
Buddha's name. Repeating a huatou like a mantra is dry and meaningless. In the
beginning stages, when one's goal is to concentrate the mind, counting breaths
is a much more efficient method than investigating a huatou. Hence, the purpose
for counting breaths in Ch'an practice is this: to concentrate the mind so that
it can better investigate huatou, in the hope that, eventually, the mind will
give rise to and break apart doubt so that wisdom may manifest.
There is another point of distinction between the attainment of sravakas and
pratyekabuddhas and that of enlightened beings who follow the path of Ch'an.
When one enters samadhi -- even samadhi that gives rise to wisdom -- one cannot
and does not interact with others. Such beings harm no one, but they also help
no one. On the other hand, enlightened Ch'an practitioners, although
vexationless, still interact with and help others. Mahayana sutras state that
enlightenment which comes to those who have only self-liberation in mind is
incomparable to the enlightenment that comes to those who practice for the sake
of sentient beings. This is the Bodhisatva Path. It is the path that all of you
on this Ch'an retreat have chosen.
Actually there is not a single thing;
Only wonderful wisdom exists.
These two lines of verse seem to contradict one another. First, the song says
that nothing exists; and in the next line it says that wonderful wisdom exists.
How can this be? If nothing exists, then wisdom must not exist as well. On the
other hand, if wisdom exists, then it refutes the notion that nothing exists.
Obviously, there is more to it than meets the eye.
According to Mahayana Buddhadharma, there are three kinds, or levels, of
non-existence. The first is that which ordinary sentient beings perceive, the
second is that which enlightened arhats and pratyekabuddhas (those who follow
the Hinayana path) perceive, and the third is that which enlightened
bodhisattvas (those who follow the Mahayana path) perceive.
Actually, for ordinary sentient beings, non-existence is a relative term used
to compare that which does not exist to that which does exist. It is a purely
conceptual construct, because ordinary sentient beings have never directly
experienced non-existence. A poor man may claim that money does not exist for
him, but if his thoughts dwell on the subject of money, then money does exist in
his mind. Hence, the non-existence of ordinary sentient beings is a false
non-existence. It is as illusory as everything else they perceive to be real.
The non-existence that Hinayana practitioners experience when they attain
arhatship, however, is absolute. At this stage, there are no more vexations or
attachments. They have entered nirvana and will not return to the samsaric world
to help others. Therefore, for arhats, wonderful wisdom also does not exist.
This is impossible for us to truly comprehend because we perceive things only
from the point of view of ordinary sentient beings. We see practitioners on the
Hinayana path penetrating deeper and deeper levels of samadhi until they attain
arhatship and enter nirvana. We perceive it to be a karmic consequence of their
intentions and actions. Arhats who have entered nirvana, however, do not
perceive it as such. For those who enter nirvana, there is no longer space,
time, vexations, or attachments.
The non-existence that the verses speak of refers to what bodhisattvas
perceive. Bodhisattvas have nothing in their minds -- no attachments, no
vexations, no ideas that there are sentient beings to save or bodhisattvas to
save them -- yet they remain in the world of samsara in order to help sentient
beings. Wonderful wisdom is precisely the bodhisattvas' natural and spontaneous
responses to the needs of sentient beings. This wisdom is described as being
wonderful because it manifests in whatever form is necessary to accommodate the
innumerably diverse needs of countless sentient beings.
How do these profound ideas relate to our practice? To make good use of this
retreat, it is important that you practice as if nothing else exists except your
method. The outside world does not exists. Others around you do not exist. There
is no such thing as pain, sleepiness, or boredom. There is no past, no future,
no enlightenment. There is not even you. All that exists -- and this too is
provisional -- is the method of practice. Ignore everything else.
If you think you have failed today in your attempts to clear your mind of
wandering thoughts, forget about it. It does not exist. If you think you have
sat well today, forget about it. It does not exist either. If you can let go of
everything except the method, including yourself, then I guarantee you will
experience enlightenment. But I would not dwell on that idea either. While you
are practicing, enlightenment should not exist. Once you are enlightened,
enlightenment will also not exist. Therefore, ignore everything, including what
I just said.
Shifu Visits Throssel Hole
On June 28th, 2000, Master Sheng-yen made his fourth visit to the United Kingdom. He spent the first day visiting Sharpham College, and then went on to Gaia House where he led a seven-day retreat attended by sixty practitioners. Shifu concluded his trip to Britain by spending two nights at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in Hexham, where forty-five monastics reside under the leadership of Abbott Rev. Master Daishin Morgan of the Serene Reflection Meditation Tradition of Soto Zen. The following is the text of the first of two question and answer sessions Shifu held with the Throssel Hole sangha. The session was translated live by Ming-yee Wang, and edited by David Berman. ( The text of the second session will be published in a future issue of Chan Magazine.)
Q: Please briefly describe your practice.
Shi-fu: There is no practice. There may be people interested in me, but I have no interest in myself. Practice itself is a process.
I became a novice monk at very young age in mainland China. I started practice at that time, but did not have many experiences to talk about, such as seeing self-nature or anything of that sort. After I moved to Taiwan, I was in the Army for a few years. (At that time, it was very difficult to leave the Army.) Although I was in the Army, I was anxious to return to monkhood. Whenever there was an opportunity, I visited monasteries, and I maintained my practice. Then, I met my master in the Linji sect. It was that encounter that led me to the right path. After obtaining permission to leave the Army, I re-entered the monastery and obtained full ordination. I then spent six years in solitary retreat in the mountains. Those six years were very important to me. I spent most of the time meditating, prostrating, reading scriptures and writing. Prostration was especially important for me during those six years of solitary retreat. Even though I was in the mountains, the physical space was very limited. The room was only about one-third the size of this room, but it seemed spacious to me. Through meditation, prostration and reading scriptures, I met with Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Arhats all the time, and my life was very rich and solid. Due to the intensity of practice, I had numerous experiences during those years; they were occuring all the time, and thus became part of my life. So, when people asked about my progress in practice, I answered that there was not much progress. Practice, experience and progress simply became a way of life. Although I did not really spend a lot of time writing in those six years, I wrote very quickly and finished many books. Many people find it very difficult to read scriptures or to write when they are on solitary retreats, because those activities interfere with their meditation. However, reading and writing did not bother me during my solitary retreat. I grouped reading and writing together in a certain mental partition. Whenever it was time to meditate, I closed the door to the reading and writing partition and sat solitarily without investigating the ideas in those scriptures. When it was time to read or write, I reopened the door to the reading and writing partition and allowed myself to think and investigate those ideas.
When I was practicing in the mountains, I did not give any name to my practice, but I think the method I used was in accord with Silent Illumination. It was Silent because I simply ignored all those ideas and thinking. It was Illumination because I had great clarity and was fully aware of what I was doing. After practicing for some time, Silence and Illumination can function simultaneously.
Then, I went to Japan. I went to Japan not to seek Zen Dharma, but to obtain a degree. In the past three or four hundred years in China, Buddhism was in decline. Monks and nuns had a low level of education and were looked down upon by the society. I was therefore determined to go to Japan to get a degree so that I could begin to provide more education for the Sangha. The education I sought would normally have taken a long time, but with the blessings of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, I finished both master and doctorate degrees in six years.
Since obtaining the degrees, I have spent the years making efforts in two directions: one is to spread the Dharma to both Sangha and lay people; the other is to provide education for the Sangha. I started by establishing a Buddhist research institute for people holding bachelor degrees. Now, I am starting a university. John Crook has participated in both efforts. He has assisted me in spreading the Dharma in England, and has also participated in several conferences held by the research institute. He has also been instrumental in arranging my trips to England, including this one.
The organization that I established is called Dharma Drum Mountain. Currently, there are more than 100 left-home Sangha members. Although I have been teaching Ch'an for more than 20 years, this organization was only established about 10 years ago, and has grown very quickly. Recognizing that I am now quite elderly, I am making preparations for other people to take over this mission.
Q: You just mentioned that Silence and Illumination could be practiced simultaneously. Is it like taking refuge in Buddha?
Shi-fu: What do you mean by taking refuge in Buddha?
Q: Taking refuge in Buddha to me means the Ch'an way of living.
Shi-fu: Do you mean that other than sitting meditation, no matter what you do in your daily life, in walking, talking to people, doing your work, you also maintain your meditation practice? Is this what you mean by taking refuge in Buddha?
Shi-fu: According to Chinese Ch'an (which was later transmitted to Japan and Korea, so the teachings should be no different), practice should not be separated from living, and living at all times should be one's practice. So, what does Silent Illumination mean? Silent means completely ignoring wandering thought. Wandering thoughts are thoughts that are unrelated to what you are doing at this moment. Illumination means complete clarity on what you are doing at this moment. So, if one can maintain Silent Illumination all the time, one will experience peace, tranquility, openness and brightness. There will be very little disturbance in one's emotion. Even if one encounters disturbance, one can easily return to Illumination.
Of course, when you are doing formal sitting meditation, there should be a method that you can apply. In the Japanese tradition, one may be using "Shikantaza", full awareness that your body is sitting. If you maintain full awareness of your body and ignore wandering thoughts, you will very easily get into the practice of Silent Illumination. Similarly, people practicing Vipassana, especially practicing the contemplation of sensation, can connect their method to Silent Illumination. However, the objective of Silent Illumination practice is not to enter the four sequential levels of Samadhi. When you enter Samadhi, you achieve Silence, but not Illumination.
Q: In Ch'an, we talk about enlightenment a lot. What is enlightenment?
Shi-fu: Good question. Due to time constraints, I will provide a brief answer for a very difficult question. Enlightenment is seeing Nature. What is Nature, and with what do we see it? First, we have to talk about wisdom, in the Dharma sense. Wisdom manifests when self-centeredness completely severs. What is wisdom? Wisdom is basically a selfless attitude. That is, whatever you encounter, you do not relate to it based on "self" or anything that is related to "self". This "self" can mean an individual self, or a group of selves, or the universe as a total self. When one has no attachment to this notion of "self", one's attitude in dealing with any situation is called wisdom. When wisdom manifests, the Nature is seen. What is Nature? Some called it Self-Nature, Buddha-Nature, or the Nature of Emptiness. When one thinks of seeing Buddha-Nature, one may think that there is something concrete to be seen, but it is rather the case that seeing Buddha-Nature entails realizing the conditional arising of whatever there is to be seen.
When you practice, you encounter all kinds of experiences, physical and mental. For example, you may feel like you are in the state of unity; you feel like you have completely unified with the universe. This can be described as phenomenal unification or the state of one-mind. There are also other kinds of phenomena, like the manifestation of supernormal powers. One such phenomenon is the sudden manifestation of great intelligence. You may suddenly understand Sutras that you did not understand before, or you may learn skills very quickly and easily that were previously very difficult. These phenomena may be considered good experiences, since they enhance your confidence and faith in your practice and in the Dharma. This is not, however, genuine enlightenment. Genuine enlightenment must be in accord with the principles described by the Sixth Patriarch, Master Huineng: no form, no thought and no abiding. No thought is related to no abiding, as described in the Diamond Sutra. When the mind functions without abiding, it is called "no thought". When the mind functions and abides on certain things, it is called "having thoughts". No form means no unchanging and definite form. The Diamond Sutra also refers to these principles when it says, "Wherever there are phenomena, there is illusion". In your meditation, you may experience some of these phenomena. Insofar as they are phenomena, they are illusory.
Q: According to Master Dogen, practice and enlightenment are one. From my understanding, the practice itself is to let go; let go of everything that arises.
Shi-fu: That's right. No doubt about Master Dogen. Otherwise, Master Ju-Ching (sp?-should be pinyin) would not have transmitted the Dharma to him.
Q: How did you come up with the name "Dharma Drum" for your organization? For a drum to make sound, there must be someone striking it.
Shi-fu: Did you hear it?
Q: I can't say that I hear it.
Shi-fu: Shakyamuni Buddha said the true Dharma cannot be spoken. Any Dharma that is spoken is only an experienced teaching. I named the organization "Dharma Drum" because the term is mentioned in many Sutras. In fact, there is a Sutra called the "Great Dharma Drum Sutra". The Lotus Sutra and the Avatamsaka Sutra use many terms to describe the Buddha spreading the Dharma, including "striking the Dharma drum" and "dropping Dharma rain". All these are analogies for spreading the Dharma. They remind sentient beings that they are still in delusion and need the Dharma to free themselves from suffering.
You are very honest by saying that you did not hear it.
Q: I have been a left-home person for some years, but my thoughts about monkhood are changing constantly. I still cannot find a true and good reason for continuing as a left-home person. What is the true objective of
Shi-fu: It is quite normal that after one becomes a monk, one's perceptions about being a monk change over time. You can try to imagine the life of a monk, but things become very different after you actually become a monk. Before your ordination, you may think that you have learned enough about monkhood by talking to people, but different people have different mental states, and hence experience monkhood differently. Also, after one becomes a monk, one is constantly practicing and the mental state matures over time. Therefore, one will naturally have different thoughts, reflections and perceptions of monkhood. There are, however, some basic reasons, in principle, for one to maintain one's status as a monk. They are Bodhichitta (also called Bodhi-Mind) and Renunciation. Bodhichitta here means offering one's life for renunciation. And renunciation, for monks, primarily means the lifestyle of solitude. A person who takes up the Bodhichitta way of life is one who renounces civil life and offers his life in gratitude to the three Jewels.
Some people have the misunderstanding that once they leave home, they will be free from vexations and immediately attain liberation. But even in the Theravada tradition, once you attain the first level of Sainthood, you still have to go through seven lifetimes to attain liberation. Even at the second level of Sainthood, there are still three more lifetimes to go, to say nothing of the fact that there is no guarantee you will attain any level of Sainthood in this lifetime, even if you leave home. In the Mahayana tradition, we talk about enlightenment, and indeed, enlightenment is very important on one's path of practice. That does not mean, however, that your monkhood is meaningless if you don't attain enlightenment. Your decision to take monkhood should not be confused with your goal to attain enlightenment. As long as you hold on to the two basic principles, Bodhichitta and Renunciation, your determination as a monk will remain firm, no matter what situation you encounter, and with such determination, you will definitely be liberated from your vexations.
Q: Since you have taught regularly in both the East and the West, what are the differences between Easterners and Westerners in terms of practice? As Westerners, in what areas should we pay more attention?
Shi-fu: It is difficult to say how Easterners differ from Westerners. After all, we are all human beings. Especially in this information age, with the advantage of telecommunication, as soon as ideas come up in the West, those in the East catch up with them. Therefore, I really don't see that there is anything Westerners should pay more attention to. However, it is my observation that Westerners are usually more diligent in practice.
There is currently the problem in Western religions, such as Catholicism, that fewer and fewer people are willing to enter
monastic life, and this tendency has now appeared in the East as well. My organization is relatively new, and in Taiwan, there is a lot of enthusiasm for such newer organizations. But older organizations within Chinese Buddhism have great difficulty finding people who want to leave home. I am quite impressed by seeing so many people in this monastery. One thing I would like to caution you about is that you should not lose touch with the society. Otherwise, twenty or thirty years from now, this group will have become very old-fashioned. Old monastics will die, and young people will not want to join. Then, this group will disappear. So, please pay attention to this.
Q: It appears to me that listening is a real problem. We listen to other people talk and we listen to the Dharma, but with our differences in cultural background and experience, we tend not to listen to the true meanings. In this Center, we always say that when Wisdom manifests, all obstacles sever. Can you elaborate more on this?
Shi-fu: You are quite right. When Wisdom manifests, all obstacles sever. But what is Wisdom? As I previously said, it is the attitude of selflessness. But that alone is not enough. In dealing with various situations, you need various tools, information and experience. For example, if your car breaks down on the road, you can't simply say that all I need is Wisdom and I will have no obstacle. You will still need to know how to fix the car. People need all kinds of skills, information and experience to deal with various situations. When I was touring this Monastery, I found that many people here are very skillful in different areas. That is very good. So, when we say that when wisdom manifests, all obstacles sever, we mean that when one encounters a situation, one will learn how to deal with the situation without any vexation in one's mind. As such, there will be no obstacle.
This is why I just mentioned that we should not lose touch with the society. You may think that it is good to get away from the vexations and obstacles in the outside world, but when you do so, you also lose touch with resources that the society might provide. You also limit your capacity to assist sentient beings, and you therefore limit the development of your own
Q: As people, we are always limited by our physical bodies, as well as by culture, education and experience. It is therefore really hard to see or listen to the true meanings. Everything we perceive is already colored by various existing conditions. How can we bypass these conditions and see or hear the true meanings?
Shi-fu: That is very difficult. You can only do so after you see the True Nature in a very thorough manner. Only then can you truly perceive without "self" or conditions interfering. Before you see the True Nature, you must rely on the fundamental principles taught by the Buddha, such as conditional origination and karma. You can handle situations by using these principles.
Lindley Hanlon, who completed Part One of the Meditation Instructors Training
Program in December, 1999, has been teaching meditation to students at the
Manhattan School of Music for the last two semesters. In the classes, Lindley
likens the mind to a musical instrument, which requires tuning and practice to
perform well. She emphasizes relaxation, to reduce the tension and stress of
musical performance and competition, and concentration, to keep the mind on the
music and free from internal thoughts and judgments.
The classes, and subsequent performances, are part of a doctoral study of the
effects of meditation on musical performance, which Joanne Chang is completing
at Columbia University's Teachers' College.
In a wonderful concert on December 9, 2000 the students tested their
newly-acquired skills of concentration and composure. Students meditated
together as a group before the concert, and practiced self-composure and direct
contemplation backstage before playing. Joanne monitored heart rates and other
indicators before and after meditation, and the performance, to collect
scientific data for her study. In their comments after the concert, students
mentioned that Lindley's emphasis on feeling united with the audience, and on
thinking of their performances as priceless gifts they were offering to others,
helped them overcome their feelings of separation from the audience and the
These students are already world-class performers, some having successfully
competed in international competitions. The majority are piano students.
Everyone is invited to attend the students' spring performance at Horace Mann
Auditorium at Teacher's College on March 10, 2001 at 6:00pm, where twenty
top-ranked musicians will play some of the great masterpieces of musical