Summer 1996


The Heart Sutra  Commentary by Master Sheng-yen
Poem  by David Berman
Ch'an Slogans and the Creation of Ch'an Ideology: The Disputed Place of "A Special Transmission Outside the Scriptures" in Ch'an  Professor Albert Welter
Excerpts from The Principles of Transmitting Mind by Master Huang-po   Commentary by Master Sheng-yen
Retreat Report  D.B.
Song of Mind of Niu-t'ou Fa-Jung  Commentary by Master Sheng-yen

The Heart Sutra

This is the eleventh lecture in a series delivered by Shih-fu during a special class at the Chan Meditation Center.


The next lines of the Heart Sutra read: "There is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no cessation of suffering, and no path." These words negate the Four Noble Truths, which are closely related to the Twelve Links of Conditioned Arising. (The Twelve Links of Conditioned Arising were discussed in the Spring 1996 issue of the Ch'an Magazine.) If you are not successful in seeing that the twelve links are empty, then you will remain in samsara, the cycle of birth and death. Samsara is the ocean of suffering. Therefore, if you have trouble contemplating the causes and conditions that are the twelve links, then you should try contemplating the Four Noble Truths instead.

I will approach the four truths in the same way that I did the twelve links, first explaining their meaning and then outlining methods of contemplation. The first level is to intellectually understand the truths. The second level is to contemplate them. The third level is to recognize that the Four Noble Truths are empty, that they do not exist.

If you are unaware that you suffer, then you cannot possibly know the cause of suffering, or the path to the cessation of suffering. Therefore, it is imperative to understand the Four Noble Truths. Yet, that is not enough. You must also master the second level - contemplation - for only through contemplation can you transcend the Four Noble Truths. Without contemplation, you cannot leave behind samsara. Further still, if you are unaware of the third level, then you are a practitioner who is concerned only with leaving suffering behind. Mastering the third level, you realize that the Four Noble Truths are also empty, and that there should be no attachment to them. This is the Mahayana understanding.

If you thoroughly understand the Twelve Links of Conditioned Arising, you will also understand the Four Noble Truths. First, you must understand that suffering is the consequence of your previous actions. It may seem strange that the First Noble Truth - suffering - should precede the second noble truth, the cause of suffering. The natural order is for consequence to follow cause. Why is it reversed in the Four Noble Truths? The answer rests in our understanding of the twelve links. Suffering has been with us since beginningless time. The initial cause is irrelevant. Therefore, we must first start with suffering, and from there point to its cause.

I have already talked about suffering. It derives from birth, aging, sickness and death, which are none other than the Twelve Links of Conditioned Arising. The most fundamental kind of suffering is that which comes from arising and perishing, birth and death. Between birth and death, one tries to survive, and acquire and avoid certain things, which leads to more suffering. There is the suffering of not getting what one wants, the suffering of the separation of loved ones, the suffering of the coming together of people who hate each other, and the suffering from the continuation of the five skandhas.

The second of the Four Noble Truths, usually translated as "cause of suffering," literally means, "the accumulation of the cause of suffering." In particular, it refers to the ten kinds of karma: three of the mind, three of the body, and four of speech. These ten kinds of karma, or actions, can be virtuous or non-virtuous. Whether they are virtuous or non-virtuous, one must experience their consequences.

Most people think of suffering when they are in pain. They do not think of enjoyable experiences as suffering. However, both are causes of suffering. Suffering can be divided into two general categories. First is suffering that feels like suffering. The second category of suffering comes from the fact that nothing lasts. All good things that come into your life will eventually leave. All things arise and perish. As you reap the benefits of past good karma, you are also diminishing that supply of good karma. There is no guarantee that the stockpile will last forever. Only if you continue to perform good actions with good intentions will the stockpile of good karma remain.

The Second Noble Truth is the fundamental idea of Buddhism called the "principle of conditioned arising from karma." Particular actions create karma which leads to particular consequences. It is the principle of conditioned arising: anything which arises comes from various conditions coming together, and, in particular, the coming together of karma that one has created.

Practice is a kind of accumulation, so it too is part of the second noble truth. Practicing, helping sentient beings and performing virtuous activities, since they are performed with a mind of attachment, are part of the accumulation of the causes of suffering. By continuing to practice, however, you can reach the point where you no longer see yourself helping others; rather, you see sentient beings helping themselves. This is good because you will no longer be thinking about reaping rewards for your deeds. But this is not the final level. Ultimately, you will reach the level where you no longer feel that there are sentient beings to help, either by you or by themselves. This is truly a state of emptiness and non-attachment. At this level, there will be no more accumulation of the causes of suffering.

The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of suffering. How do you stop the accumulation of the causes of suffering? It is no good to say, "I don't want any more suffering." You cannot stop a pot of soup from boiling merely by stirring it. You have to remove the fire beneath the pot. With suffering, you must first accept the consequences of your previous actions. Simultaneously, you must curtail creating more karma. If you owe debts, you must pay them back. At the same time, you must stop borrowing. The question is, should we also stop performing virtuous actions? After all, they also create karma. The answer is no. However, you should perform virtuous actions without thoughts of accumulating good merit. Such thoughts would be a form of desire.

Conceptually, we may understand that we need to stop suffering and falling prey to the causes of suffering, but it is difficult to do so because our karmic burdens are heavy. That is why we need the Fourth Noble Truth, the Path. The Path can help us slowly and gradually stop suffering and accumulating the causes of suffering. The Path is the practice of precepts, samadhi and wisdom.

In practicing the precepts we perform the ten virtuous actions and refrain from performing the ten non-virtuous actions. The precepts are a guideline for behavior. With the precepts in mind, you will check your behavior. And when you break a precept, you will likely repent your action. With practice, your behavior will improve and become smoother and more natural. This will cut down on the accumulation of the causes of suffering, or at least the accumulation of non-virtuous actions.

The term "samadhi" does not solely refer to deep levels of mental absorption. It also refers to maintaining the calmness of one's mind. It's knowing constantly what kind of actions we perform and what kind of thoughts we have. When we are constantly clear about our mental state, there will be fewer opportunities to create the causes of suffering.

There are two kinds of wisdom: wisdom with outflows and wisdom without outflows. "Outflow" means one is still attached to a self. "Without outflows" means one is no longer attached to a self. Obviously, wisdom with outflows arises first. A person in whom such wisdom has arisen does not have genuine wisdom, but relies on the Buddha's wisdom. Such a person keeps the precepts, studies the Dharma and practices samadhi. Since one who has wisdom without outflows is no longer attached to a self, he or she no longer has vexations, no longer creates karma or abides in suffering. Having wisdom with outflows is like trying to inflate a balloon with a slow leak. It needs constant attention to stay full. If you leave it alone, it will deflate. If you perform virtuous actions with a self-centered mentality, then you will create suffering. The good karma you reap will eventually diminish.

If we know that we suffer, then the actual feeling of suffering will not be so bad. If we are unaware of suffering, then it can, indeed, be overwhelming. For example, I am sure everyone has experienced embarrassment, pain, torment or harassment from acquaintances and strangers. That in itself is suffering, but if you cannot let go of your attachment to those events and feelings, then you have increased your suffering. You may obsessively replay scenes over and over, thinking about what you should have done or could have said. You may even go so far as to keep tabs on these people whom you would have otherwise forgotten. They have caused you trouble and pain, yet you cannot forget them or let them go; and the more you dwell on them and your experience, the more you suffer. Often, we experience more suffering reliving these experiences than we do experiencing them, and we become so enmeshed in our thoughts and feelings that we are not even aware that we are suffering. But once we recognize a situation as one of suffering, then we are in a better position to let it go and stop dwelling on it. This is good practice. If we cultivate this skill, then even if we are again troubled by such people or events, actual suffering will be minimized. For practitioners, clearly recognizing when suffering arises is, in fact, contemplating suffering - the First Noble Truth.

Next is contemplating the causes of suffering. When you suffer, you may think it is because of some external reason - you are the victim. On the other hand, if you contemplate the causes of suffering, you'll recognize that suffering does not come without cause; and the cause of suffering is not outside, but within yourself. Truly knowing this will reduce suffering.

Contemplating the causes of suffering also means knowing that performing certain actions will lead to certain consequences. Hence, to avoid suffering, you must first refrain from doing non-virtuous actions. Second, even when you perform virtuous actions, you should not be concerned with enjoying the consequence of your virtuous actions. Do not dwell on pride or arrogance.

Third is contemplating the cessation of suffering. Really, this is tied to the first two Noble Truths. When you know suffering and the cause of it, that itself is cessation. It is knowing that suffering arises from causes and conditions and therefore cannot be genuine. Accumulation of the cause of suffering also arises from causes and conditions, and is not genuine. For example, if you realize that money and thoughts relating to it are dependent on causes and conditions, then having it, not having it, working hard for it, or losing it, will not cause suffering. There's no reason to get attached to it. If you are successful in this contemplation, suffering will be gone.

Contemplating cessation is difficult. It is easier and better to contemplate the path that leads to the cessation of suffering.

Contemplating the path means that you constantly remain on and practice the path. There are people who think of themselves as great practitioners. They point to the number of years they have practiced and the experiences they have had. This attitude actually leads them away from the path.

Unless you are fully enlightened, then suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path, still exist for you. Only when you experience genuine wisdom do the Four Noble Truths reveal themselves as being empty and illusory. That is wisdom without outflows.

The Heart Sutra goes one step further. If you say that generating genuine wisdom eliminates suffering, then you are still attached to the idea of wisdom. That is why the next line of the sutra says, "There is no wisdom or any attainment." The Heart Sutra's method is to remove all attachments from your mind, step by step. Most people cannot let go of one thing unless they have already grasped something else. The Heart Sutra speaks to this habit, and systematically removes all sources of attachment, until there is nothing left.



Six characters written after midnight,

But one of them has spirit: 

"Happiness" like an old tin weathervane, 

Awaiting a salient wind. 

David Berman


Ch'an Slogans and the Creation of Ch'an Ideology:



This paper, which will apear in two installments, is part of the Buddhist studies program of the Ch'an Meditation Center Institute of Chung-Hwa Buddhist Culture. Albert Welter is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Winnipeg in Canada. 

T'ang Ch'an and the Myth of Bodhidharma

The figure of Bodhidharma casts a large shadow over Ch'an and Zen studies. The fact that little is known about Bodhidharma is hardly unusual in the history of religions, where historical obscurity often serves as a prerequisite for posthumous claims regarding sectarian identity. Indeed, one learns much about the nature and character of Ch'an through Bodhidharma, around whose image the most successful challenge to Chinese Buddhist scholasticism was mounted. 

According to currently accepted views of Ch'an history, the successful assault of Ch'an on Buddhist scholasticism coincided with a period of vibrant dynamism, during which the activities of a core group of Ch'an masters, Ma-tsu Tao-i, Pai-chang Huai-hai, Huang-po Hsi-yun, Lin-chi I-hsüan, and so on, formed the basic components of Ch'an identity. Following this so-called "golden age", Ch'an dynamism was reduced to static formalism, and fell into a state of decline. According to this view, Sung Buddhism represents the "sunset period", the twilight glow of a once strong, vital tradition, reduced to a shadow of its former glory. From this perspective, the golden age of Buddhism in China, including Ch'an, was unequivocally the T'ang dynasty (618-907). The Sung represents the beginning of a period of unremitting decline. 

Bodhidharma has a special place in this story. As champion of a "mind to mind transmission," focusing on the enlightenment experience occurring in the context of the master-disciple relationship, Bodhidharma initiated the alternative to the textually-based teachings of the scholastic tradition. Bodhidharma's role in the transformation of Chinese Buddhism was widely acknowledged by the beginning of the Sung. The early Sung Buddhist historian, Tsan-ning (919-1001), spoke positively of Bodhidharma's role in criticizing prevailing exegetical conventions within Chinese Buddhist scholasticism. He acknowledged Bodhidharma as the first to proclaim: "Directly point to the human mind; see one's nature and become a Buddha; do not establish words and letters." 

The traditional position of Ch'an and Zen orthodoxy has been that the slogans originated with Bodhidharma and that they represent the implicit message of Ch'an teaching from its outset. Ch'an historians, following contemporary Zen scholarship, regard the slogans as products of the T'ang period, reflecting the rise to prominence of the Ch'an movement in the eighth and ninth centuries during its "golden age." As a result, the slogans are typically regarded as normative statements for a Ch'an identity fully developed by the end of the T'ang. Knowledgeable observers will note, however, that one slogan is missing from Tsan-ning's list. The principles of Ch'an identity are usually expressed through four slogans, not just the three mentioned by Tsan-ning here. The importance of the missing slogan, "A special transmission outside the scriptures" (chiao-wai pieh-ch'üan/ kyôge betsuden), is highlighted by the fact that it usually heads the list. The purpose of the present investigation is to inquire into the origins of these slogans and the way they came to represent the Ch'an tradition of Bodhidharma, highlighting the disputed position of Ch'an as "A special transmission outside the scriptures" in Sung discourse. 

Ch'an Slogans and the Formation of Ch'an Identity

Individually, the four slogans are found in works dating before the Sung, but they do not appear together as a four part series of expressions until well into the period when they are attributed to Bodhidharma in the Tsu-t'ing shih-yüan (Collection from the Garden of the Patriarchs) in 1108. Even then, their acceptance was not without controversy. Mu-an, the compiler of the Collection from the Garden of the Patriarchs, remarked contemptuously: "Many people mistake the meaning of 'do not establish words and letters.' They speak frequently of abandoning the scriptures and regard silent sitting as Ch'an. They are truly the dumb sheep of our school." In reality, three of the slogans- "do not establish words and letters"; "directly point to the human mind"; "see one's nature and become a Buddha"- were well established as normative Ch'an teaching by the beginning of the Sung. The status of the fourth slogan, "a special transmission outside the scriptures," as an interpretation of the true meaning of "do not establish words and letters" (pu li wen-tzu, literally "no establish words-letters") was the subject of continued controversy. 

"Seeing one's nature" was an old idea in China that was promoted by Tao-sheng (355-434), a disciple of Kumarajiva. Drawing from Mahayana doctrine, Tao-sheng advocated the notion of an inherent Buddha-nature in everyone. The full phrase chien-hsing ch'eng-fo ("see one's nature and become a Buddha") first appeared in a commentary to the Nirvâna sûtra, in a statement attributed to Seng-lang prior to the T'ang dynasty. The slogans "do not establish words and letters" and "directly point to the human mind" became common parlance in Ch'an circles by the end of the T'ang period. 

The first use of the phrase "a special transmission outside the scriptures" (chiao-wai pieh-ch'uan) that can be documented with historical certainty is in the Tsu-t'ang chi (Collection of the Patriarch's Hall), compiled in 952. The phrase is also included in a "tomb-inscription" of Lin-chi I-hsüan (?-866), attributed to Lin-chi's disciple, Yen-chao, appended to the end of the Lin-chi lu, the record of Lin-chi's teachings. The historical authenticity of this inscription as the work of Lin-chi's disciple is highly dubious, as the Rinzai scholar Yanagida Seizan has pointed out. The connection of the phrase "a special transmission outside the scriptures" with the Lin-chi lu (Record of Lin-chi) is highly suggestive, however, of a Ch'an identity that developed in the Lin-chi lineage during the Sung. 

While the Lin-chi lu professes to be the record of Lin-chi's words and deeds as recorded by his disciples, the current form of the text dates from an edition issued in 1120. The beginning of the twelfth century is also the time when the slogan "a special teaching outside the scriptures" was mentioned in the list of Ch'an slogans attributed to the Ch'an patriarch Bodhidharma in the Collection from the Garden of the Patriarchs, mentioned above. The association of this slogan with Lin-chi and Bodhidharma was the culmination of a process through which the identity of Ch'an was transformed by members of the Lin-chi lineage. 

Ch'an Orthodoxy at the Outset of the Sung: Ch'an as "A Special Transmission Within the Scriptures"

In the tenth century, the period of the so-called "Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms," China was without effective central control and the country was politically and geographically divided into several autonomous regions. The fate of Buddhism fell into the hands of warlords who controlled these regions. Given the recent experience of dynastic collapse and the perception of Buddhist culpability for T'ang failings, most warlords continued policies established in the late T'ang designed to restrict Buddhist influence over Chinese society. As a result, support for Buddhism during this period was geographically isolated to a few regions. Ch'an lineages emerged as the principal beneficiaries of this regionally-based support. 

The Buddhist revival in tenth century China was dominated by supporters of the Fa-yen lineage. Fa-yen's teachings attracted numerous students, many of whom achieved considerable fame. The normative definition of Ch'an in Fa-yen circles envisioned Ch'an as the quintessential teaching of Chinese Buddhism, and the basis for the revival of Chinese Buddhist civilization. It was rooted in a T'ang vision of Buddhism as an indispensable force in the creation of a civilized society. As a result, the Wu-yüeh kingdom depended on the re-establishment of Buddhist institutions as central features of Wu-yüeh society and culture. To this end, Wu-yüeh rulers made a concentrated effort to rebuild temples and pilgrimage sites, and to restore the numerous Buddhist monuments and institutions that had suffered from neglect and the ravages of war. Historically important centers in the region, such as Mt. T'ien-t'ai, were rebuilt. New Buddhist centers, like the Yung-ming Temple in Lin-an (Hang-chou), were established. Ambassadors were sent abroad, to Japan and Korea, to collect copies of important scriptures no longer available in China. After several decades of constant dedication to these activities, the monks and monasteries of Wu-yüeh acquired considerable reputations. Monks throughout China fled to Wu-yüeh monasteries. 

In addition to embracing Ch'an innovations, Wu-yüeh Ch'an identified with old T'ang traditions, and this identification with the larger Buddhist tradition became a standard feature in the collective memory of Wu-yüeh Ch'an. The distinguishing character of the Fa-yen lineage within Ch'an is typically recalled through the syncretic proclivities of its patriarchs, normally reduced to the harmony between Ch'an and Hua-yen in Wen-i's teachings, between Ch'an and T'ien-t'ai in Te-shao's teachings, and between Ch'an and Pure Land in Yen-shou's teachings. 

The Wu-yüeh view of Ch'an was officially represented at the Sung court by Tsan-ning, a scholar-monk who served as a leading official in Wu-yüeh, and in turn, at the Sung court. The "official" view of Wu-yüeh Ch'an presented to the Sung court by Tsan-ning accepted three slogans attributed to Bodhidharma as defining normative Ch'an teaching, and a characterization of Ch'an as the quintessential teaching of Buddhism ("the ch'an of the Supreme Vehicle"). The fact that the fourth slogan, "a special transmission outside the scriptures", was missing from this normative definition is closely connected to the view of Ch'an as the quintessential teaching of Buddhism, which presupposes harmony between Ch'an and Buddhist teaching. Rather than "a special transmission outside the scriptures," Tsan-ning considered Bodhidharma's teaching as a branch of the larger tradition of Buddhism stemming from Shakyamuni. According to Tsan-ning, those who conceive of a Ch'an identity independent of Buddhist teaching do not understand that "the scriptures (ching) are the words of the Buddha, and meditation (ch'an) is the thought of the Buddha; there is no discrepancy whatsoever between what the Buddha conceives in his mind and what he utters with his mouth." 

The Wu-yüeh perspective on the harmony between Ch'an and the scriptures was not unprecedented, but represented the "official" view in the T'ang. A century earlier, Tsung-mi (780-841), an influential interpreter of Buddhism recognized as a patriarch in both the Ch'an and Hua-yen traditions, promoted harmony or correspondence between Ch'an and Buddhist teachings, arguing that Ch'an teachings are in accord with the Buddhist canon, on the one hand, and the doctrinal positions of Chinese Buddhist schools, on the other. Tsung-mi's views provided the model for Wu-yüeh Ch'an, both for Tsan-ning and for Yung-ming Yen-shou (904-975), Wu-yüeh Ch'an's greatest spokesperson. 

Yen-shou recommended pluralism as the guiding principle governing Buddhist teaching and practice. For Yen-shou, Ch'an suggested the principle of inclusion in which the entire Buddhist tradition culminated in a grand epiphany. Doctrinally, this meant that the entire scriptural canon became united in a great, all encompassing harmony. From the perspective of practice, all actions, without exception, became Buddha deeds. Yen-shou clearly advocated a Ch'an practice based in the Buddhist traditions of the past, opposing those who "have become attached to emptiness, and [whose practice] is not compatible with the scriptures." 

In the end, much was at stake over the two competing interpretations of Ch'an. The two conceptions of Ch'an as "harmony between Ch'an and the scriptures," or "a special transmission outside the scriptures," reflect different religious epistemologies. In essence, the distinction here is between a form of rationalism, a view that reasoned explanation is capable of communicating the truth coupled with the belief that the vehicle of this reasoned explanation is Buddhist scripture, and a type of mysticism, a view that the experience of enlightenment is beyond reification, verbal explanation, or rational categories, and that Buddhist scripture is incapable of conveying that experience. The debate in early Sung Ch'an was whether Ch'an is acquiescent with the tradition of Buddhist rationalism or belongs to an independent mystical tradition. 

The history of Ch'an and Zen is generally presented as denying Buddhist rationalism in favor of a mysticism that in principle transcends every context, including even the Buddhist one. The "orthodox" Ch'an position maintains that the phrase "do not establish words and letters" is consistent with "a special transmission outside the scriptures," treating the two slogans as a pair. In this interpretation, both phrases are said to point to the common principle that true enlightenment, as experienced by the Buddha and transmitted through the patriarchs, is independent of verbal explanations, including the record of the Buddha's teachings (i.e., scriptures) and later doctrinal elaborations. This interpretation was not acknowledged in Wu-yüeh Ch'an, which distinguished the phrase "do not establish words and letters" from the principle of an independent transmission apart from the scriptures, and treated the two as opposing ideas. Wu-yüeh Ch'an acknowledged the validity of Bodhidharma's warning against attachment to scriptures and doctrines, but did not accept that this warning amounted to a categorical denial. As Ch'an became established in the Sung, monks and officials rose to challenge the Wu-yüeh interpretation, and insist on an independent tradition apart from the scriptures. 

In the next issue, we will look at how monks associated with the Lin-chi lineage, along with the highly placed officials that supported them, argued for official recognition of Ch'an as "a special transmission outside the scriptures." The vehicle for their claims came with the compilation of new "transmission records", the Ch'an lineage histories that came to typify Sung dynasty Ch'an as a movement in search of a new identity, disinguishing it as the most vibrant form of Chinese Buddhism.

Excerpts from The Principles of Transmitting the Mind

Commentary by Master Sheng-yen. Poem and commentary translated by Guo-yuan Shi.



Now is the Dharma-Ending Age.

People are practicing Ch'an everywhere,

But, seduced by sound and form,

They mistake them for principle and subject.


Let the mind be like the vastness of empty space,

Let it wither like a lifeless trunk,

Let it cool like the ashes of a dead fire.

This at least approaches Ch'an.


Let the mind depart from existence and emptiness,

becoming empty, boundless, without entanglements,

Like the sun in empty space,

Bright, natural, and illuminating to all.

Is it not effortless?


When, in reaching this state,

Mind does not pursue, rely, or attach,

Like all Buddhas,

Without abiding, Mind manifests.


If one is unable to understand what I mean,

No matter how much one learns or knows -

fervently practicing the esoteric way,

dressing in grass, eating bark -

One's mind-nature will not be seen.

On the outer path, practicing heresy,

one is kin to Mara.

Huang-po lived in the latter part of the mid-T'ang dynasty (618-907). At this time, Buddhadharma was waning. The number of sincere practitioners was decreasing, and of these, few became enlightened. About this situation Huang-po said, "In this great country of T'ang, there is not a single Ch'an master." He called it the Dharma-Ending Age.

At the same time, outer path teachings and practices - inside and outside the Buddhist community - were proliferating. People dressed in the robes of the Sangha and used the name of Buddhism to spread heretical beliefs. Huang-po said, "These days it would appear that there are many masters and practitioners, and that would be wonderful, but actually most are attached to sound and form."

By sound and form, Huang-po was referring to the sense objects (dusts) of the six sense organs and their respective consciousnesses. The six sense organs and consciousnesses are the eyes and seeing, the ears and hearing, the nose and smelling, the tongue and tasting, the body and feeling, and the mind and thinking. The six dusts are forms, sounds, odors, flavors, objects, and symbols. Since humans rely mostly on their ears and eyes to interact with others and the environment, many methods of concentration make use of these two senses, and their accompanying objects - sound and form - to train the mind.

Nothing is intrinsically wrong with the methods of practice, but problems can arise in the minds of practitioners. In the course of meditation, one will undoubtedly hear sounds and see things. Some of these phenomena will be external, and some will come from within, but all should be regarded as illusion. As the mind begins to move from scatteredness to clarity, it will often reach out to grasp things: the hum of the refrigerator may sound like beautiful music. The rule of practice is not to attach to phenomena, even if the sights and sounds of paradise fill your eyes and ears.

As the mind quiets, the senses become more acute and the mind becomes more expansive. The sound of an ant moving across the floor may sound like a stampeding buffalo. You may become so immersed in a particular sound that everything else around you fades away. The sound may grow, like ripples expanding outward when a stone is thrown into a pond, until you yourself become the sound, and the sound becomes one with the entire universe. Likewise, you may see flashes and circles of light in your visual field. One retreatant saw his fellow practitioners surrounded by golden halos. You may sense light emanating from your chest, and if your mind is stable and clear, the light might expand, like sound, until you, the light and the universe are one.

What I have described may happen to you on the path of practice. They are good experiences and signposts of progress, but they are not the final destination. If you become attached to these phenomena, they become serious obstructions. Even if you experience oneness with the entire universe, it is not liberation. It is attachment to sound and form. Huang-po said that attaching to sound and form, no matter how beautiful or expansive it may seem, is not in accordance with enlightenment, and has nothing to do with liberation. Better it would be for the mind to be like a withered trunk or cold ash. These analogies describe a mind that is settled and undisturbed by sound and form. Such a mind, though not enlightened, is close to Ch'an.

The mind of Ch'an is one that is boundless, illuminating, and free from entanglements, like a sun hanging in empty space. One should strive in practice to be like this sun, empty of all attachments. One does this by letting go of the previous thought - the past - and the next thought - the future. When this happens, the present thought will naturally fall away as well, leaving one unattached to existence and emptiness. This is true Ch'an practice.

Retreat Report


This would be my first real Ch'an retreat. I had attended two one-day meditations at the Center, and found those difficult enough that I was both frightened of and felt the need for more. So I had applied for the seven-day retreat months in advance as part of a strategy: by the time I was accepted, and the retreat was really impending, and my fears were becoming tangible, it would be too late to back out. I had cornered myself into having this experience, and it had evidently worked, because there I was.

I found my place in the Hall (even found my favorite cushion) and then chose my place on the library floor and realized to my dismay that there would be nothing between the floor and me. I don't know what I had expected, futons to appear out of a closet somewhere, I suppose. The acceptance letter had said to bring blankets or a sleeping bag, for warmth, I had thought. It's July, I had figured, so I had a flannel sheet and a pillow, and none of that lovely foam padding I saw coming out of the duffels of the other participants. Oh well, suffering injustice is the first of Bodhidharma's all-inclusive practices. Retreat had begun.

The retreat actually began, it seemed, by consensus, with people gradually drifting into the Hall, bowing, prostrating, stretching, arranging cushions, sitting. It struck me that they all seemed more experienced than I, all probably had foam mattresses, then it struck me that I should drop that line of thinking. And then it struck me, as I began to think of thinking of myself just sitting, that the Hall seemed quieter than usual, much quieter than Sunday mornings, quieter than Friday nights.

Tick, tick, ding.

Not a very good night. I tried to apply Guo-gu Shi's sleeping lesson, but I never found a position in which some pointy bone wasn't vexed by the hard floor, and I was awake and waiting when the first knock announced the first day. I got up sore.

And Shih-fu began the day with a gift. "How many people had trouble sleeping?" My hand shot up. "What trouble?" I knocked the hard floor. "Tonight you take two square cushions, no problem." Thank you, Shih-fu!

Then the first day's lesson: "Relax the body and mind, use the method, give rise to the mind of joy". I'd been practicing various versions of "relax the body and mind" for nearly thirty years, and felt pretty secure about it. And "the mind of joy" repeated a lesson from just a few days earlier, at Shih-fu's last Friday night class. He had stopped our walking meditation, which was evidently tense and clunky, and showed us a way of natural walking which was smooth and relaxed, and then while we were practicing had said, "Now bring a gentle smile to your face." The effect was immediate - I felt lighter, happier, and my attitude toward my practice, which had been, well, fierce, became carefree, almost playful. No problem.

Which left only one thing: "Use the method". I had been practicing shikantaza for only a few months (after many years of other methods), but as taught by Guo-gu Shi it had seemed perfect for me, body-conscious as I am. In fact, many of his teachings had echoed my kung-fu. Shih-fu's approach to practicing form: maintain a continuous sense of the whole body, let the consciousness fill the body until it expands and includes the environment. . . but in practice, "just sitting" was illusive. The vivid sense that I had of myself in movement just didn't seem to emerge from stillness, as I looked for my method my mind moved away from it, and when I went to pick it up I couldn't seem to find it. That's how I spent the first morning, and by lunch time I had determined not to spend the whole retreat like that.

And once again, Shih-fu came to my rescue. "Relax, use your method, with joy. Now, is anyone not clear about their method?" My hand shot up. "Okay, after lunch, Guo-gu Shi, talk with David." Period. At which point I realized I was the only one with my hand up. Hmm. No mattress, no method. Not so good.

Guo-gu Shi gave me an expedient method for assembling a mental image of the body sitting, a method I could return to as tangibly as to the number one. It began working for me immediately; it was a bridge to the formlessness of shikantaza. I used it consistently through the first period after lunch. By the second period I was flipping through it more and more quickly, and by the third I had mostly abandoned it, and was going immediately to my body as a whole.

The fourth period was walking, which I always like, and through the fifth and sixth my method continued to work for me, but with a growing unease at its bottom. My body was sitting on a thickening base of gradually increasing pain, and the yoga, massage and stretching between periods was helping less and less.

I had trained for this retreat, sitting longer and longer periods at home for several months. And perhaps that training had helped, because here, after 24 hours, I was actually in better shape than at the end of either of the one-day meditations I'd attended. Still, I could tell that tomorrow would be bad. What I hoped was that tomorrow would be the worst, and that by the third day my legs would be getting accustomed to the routine.

After dinner I washed and did some ch'i-gung and stretching for my legs. That refreshed me enough and Shih-fu's evening lecture inspired me enough that I was able to get some work done during the evening periods. And the two square cushions were soft enough that I slept through the night without complaint.

But I awoke to find my legs frozen in place. "Not enough recovery time" I thought, "I'm just too old for six hours to be enough recovery time." I know the physiology of recovery time pretty well, and after thinking about it through most of morning exercise I realized that I was on the verge of creating a potent excuse for not sitting well. Put it down! 

I put down the excuse, but I didn't put down my legs, and my morning was evenly divided between mind training and leg management. By the time I reached the relief of walking meditation, I was thinking what I had thought 24 hours before: I don't want to spend the whole retreat like this.

I had two more periods to sit through before lunch and then, hopefully shortly thereafter, interview. I tried my best to use my method and make use of all the advice I'd heard about pain, but those two goals seemed to run right into each other. I knew that I should neither fight the pain nor concentrate on it, but my method kept bringing me back to it. As I tried to observe my body as a whole, my legs became like an oversized brass section that drowned out the rest of the orchestra. And then my left knee sounded a very sour note.

I injured that knee as a dancer over twenty years ago, and am very sensitized to the difference between muscular ache and joint pain. When I started to get shooting pain in my knee my brain went off like a car alarm. My method was gone, replaced by fear; "relax the body and mind" was gone, replaced by an unintentional writhing produced by waves of agitated ch'i. Finally I unlocked my legs and gave up, and five seconds later the bell rang.

The lesson of the day had been in five phrases: no permanence, no self, no form, no thought, no abiding. I had already heard it twice, but had evidently been ignoring it all morning, and now "no permanence" rang in my mind. I spent a few minutes indulging the thought that I had the discipline of a five-year-old, and then got up and went to lunch. 

I asked Guo-gu Shi how I could avoid focusing on my leg pain when my method put my mind on my body. He answered that if I observed the whole body, then the part that hurt would be only a small part of that whole. I understood the theory but in practice my knee seemed like the Oklahoma bombing - it may have been only a small part of the country, but it attracted the whole country's attention. I had other questions about method that had arisen during my more successful periods the previous day, but even as Guo-gu Shi shared insights into shikantaza that inspired me, I was inwardly afraid that I would be unable to practice any of the teaching I had received about the pain.

The next 24 hours were continuous struggle. I worked on my method, then I worked on my legs, then my method, then my legs. One problem I didn't have was wandering thoughts - my knee pain was very much in the present, and for the most part, the present was where I stayed.

On the afternoon of the third day I had my interview with Shih-fu. He had already made it clear that leg pain was unimportant, and I didn't want to waste my time with him on trivial matters, but he asked "How's it going?" and the truth was that the main thing interrupting my practice was the pain.

Shih-fu said: "Sit higher. Use more cushions. Move when necessary. Use your method. It's all right." 

My retreat was transformed. I admit I wasted a little more time going over all the mistakes I had made: trying to maintain lotus position, trying to sit like other people, worrying about appearances. Meanwhile I got another cushion, rolled up some towels to support my knees, found a position that reduced my pain from sharp stabs to a general ache, and went back to work. Gradually, a piece at a time, all the training I was receiving began to work for me. My aching legs became like a solid platform on which I sat; I used the pain itself to help anchor me in the present. I discovered how the pain, the breeze on my face, my hands in their mudra, the clothes on my skin, all my sensations could be assembled into a kind of map of myself sitting, and then I discovered that it was unnecessary to create a mental map of myself, for I could simply sit, and just as Guo-gu Shi had said, the observing mind is always there.

On the fifth day, in the first period after breakfast, the bell seemed to ring much too soon, and I sat through the yoga and the second period. When the second bell rang I once again didn't want to interrupt my practice, but I did want to stretch my legs, and it occurred to me for the first time that yoga was not a break, but another practice, and that I didn't have to sit through to practice through. I did my yoga without interrupting my mindfulness, then, sat, then walked, then sat, ate, worked, sat . . . from that moment on the retreat was all practice.

Shih-fu was right, of course, about everything. An upcoming week seems like an eternity, but a week past is no time at all. A week is barely a taste of Ch'an, barely a sniff. And while Shih-fu's six years in the mountains still seems an impossibility, it seems, on the other hand, an absolute necessity, for it has become unacceptable to me that my own mind is not its own master. The retreat has left me joyful, and grateful, at the level of practice I experienced, which I know I could not have discovered any other way. But it has also left me uncomfortably clear about the amount of practice that's really necessary, about the amount of time that I waste, and about the fact that the only thing standing between me and silent illumination is my own steadfast refusal to shut up. 

Song of Mind of Niu-t'ou Fa-jung

A lecture given during retreat at the Ch'an Meditation Center, Elmhurst, Queens, New York.


The four virtues are unborn;

The three bodies have always existed.

The six sense organs contact their realms;

Discrimination is not consciousness.

Song of Mind

The four virtues refer to nirvana and are permanence, joy, self and purity. The three bodies refer to the Buddha and are Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya. The six sense organs are eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. Consciousness beyond discrimination is the enlightenment experience, the mind that has opened up and brightened.

The four virtues of nirvana seem identical to what Buddhism considers to be the illusory views of ordinary sentient beings. How can this be so? First, we must investigate what Buddhism says about the delusory thinking of people.

Buddhism speaks of impermanence, suffering, selflessness and defilement. All things are impermanent. They arise, come together, move apart and vanish because of causes and conditions. Nothing is permanent or independent. Hence, nothing has self-nature. Suffering arises because of causes and conditions and cause and consequence. This is so because our bodies and minds are impure, defiled.

Would you say that your life is total joy? I doubt it, just as I would doubt it if you said your life were total suffering. Buddhism's idea of suffering is intimately associated with the concept of impermanence. Buddhism also recognizes the experience of joy. Without joy, human existence would not continue. It is only because we have experienced joy that we search for more. For some, the desires they feel are also a kind of joy. One might say that life is the pursuit of joy, but to say that we experience nothing but joy would be incorrect.

The fact is, we experience suffering and joy. If there was only joy, Sakyamuni Buddha would never have practiced. Then what is this joy that we feel? It is that which we experience in the realm of desire. It is not the joy of nirvana. Our joy is transient. Those who are attached to worldly joys are unable even to experience samadhi, let alone enlightenment. 

Those who have a deep connection with suffering do better in practice. One needs a certain amount of determination in one's practice. If you feel your life is joyful all the time, you won't exert yourself. People with a strong sense of suffering might practice with the desire of leaving behind samsara and attaining nirvana. This is the Hinayana way. Mahayana bodhisattvas also have a strong sense of the suffering of sentient beings. It is because of suffering that bodhisattvas make vows to help innumerable sentient beings. Having a deep understanding of the suffering nature of life is essential to practice.

Every day when we perform morning and evening services, we repeat: I vow to deliver innumerable sentient beings. How many of you understand the depth of what you are saying? Perhaps you are just reciting it, without having a deep conviction of wanting to help sentient beings. It's not that you don't care. I'm sure all of us care about others to some extent. It's just that we don't really feel that much suffering. We feel that our own lives are not so bad, and that people around us are also doing quite well. Since we don't have a strong sense of suffering, we do not have a strong desire to deliver sentient beings. In fact, if you went around trying to help deliver others, some would undoubtedly get annoyed with you. They might say, "Hey! Mind your own business. Stop messing with me." Only when you really know that life is the consequence of suffering will you have genuine concern for sentient beings. Sentient beings need to be helped because life is spent in vexation.

Do you think that chickens, cows and pigs suffer? I'm sure some people don't think of it at all and say simply that they are born to be our food. But what if we were in the animal's position, waiting to be slaughtered? That would be suffering. But we aren't in that situation. Or are we? 

On the other hand, maybe cows, chickens and pigs don't suffer. Maybe they aren't aware that they are to be slaughtered. Maybe they feel they have pretty good lives. They get unlimited food, they're taken care of, they have room to roam. It's a good life, while it lasts. 

I used this analogy purposely, because like these animals, many of us don't even realize that we are suffering. But we are. We fight with each other, with ourselves; we don't have control of the world, our bodies, our minds or emotions. We have vexations all the time and yet, when asked, we say, "My life is pretty good. I don't suffer or have vexations." In this sense, we aren't much different from the domestic animals we feed and then slaughter. Pitiable.

Suffering stems from impermanence and impurity. Even joy becomes suffering because it doesn't last. Eventually, we lose things we love, we get sick, we die. The four virtues of permanence, joy, self and purity refer to nirvana, wisdom and Buddha-nature. These things have no beginning or end, so of course they are permanent. Nirvana does not start when a person attains Buddhahood. Nirvana has always been, without beginning. The same is true for Buddha-nature. It is not because you practice that Buddha-nature begins. Buddha-nature has always existed. The same is true for natural wisdom. These three things are truly permanent. They haven't changed from impermanence to permanence. Permanence cannot grow out of impermanence. Truly permanent things have always been permanent. 

Again, true joy does not come and go. True joy is uninterrupted and permanent. Every evening I ask, "Has today been a good day?" Some say yes, some say no, some remain silent. For the people who raise their hands, was it truly a good day? To truly have a good day, you must have an understanding of what a good day is. You would have to experience good days all the time. All days must be equally good. If you say that today is a good day, but yesterday wasn't, then today wasn't truly good either. It's good only in comparison to the previous day. Tomorrow may be better. Does that mean that today wasn't quite as good as you thought it was? If you were to say that all your days have been good, and then leave this retreat and get hit by a truck, would you stick to your word and say, "Ah, today's a good day"? 

All the joys that we experience, whether they be physical, mental, or emotional, derive from the realm of desire. They are temporary. Therefore, they cannot be considered true joys. Beings in the heavens experience bliss because they are not constrained by bodies as we are, but their joy is also limited and temporary. People in samadhi experience dhyana joy - they transcend body, space and time - but samadhi eventually fades too, and people who have experienced dhyana joy want to meditate to regain that great joy. Unfortunately, it too is limited and impermanent. 

Also, regardless of what kind of joy one experiences, it always seems short in comparison to the experience of suffering. This is to be understood from our subjective point of view. I'll give a couple of examples. A sleep that is comfortable, peaceful and relaxed seems to pass quickly. Nightmares, on the other hand, seem to drag on forever. If you are meditating well, time flies. But if your legs hurt, it seems to take forever for that bell to ring. Objectively, time might be the same, but from our subjective point of view, suffering lingers and joy is fleeting.

The self that we experience in ordinary life is not the true self. It is an illusion - our imagination and vexations. Reflect on this. What is it that you consider your self? There really is no such thing. It is the piecing together of various illusions and thoughts. We speak of the self as something which belongs to "me," something that's "mine," or something "I am." It is only consecutive thoughts, the previous thought generating a subsequent thought, which create the illusion of a self. There is only an illusory mind which derives from vexations. Vexations, in turn, come from fundamental ignorance, and fundamental ignorance has no beginning.

In our lives, thoughts are constantly changing. Where in this turbulence is there a self? It is only Buddha-nature, nirvana and wisdom which never change. Only these are the true self. The self that we know is an illusion.

Something that is truly pure never changes, never moves. Fundamentally, there is no such thing as purity or impurity. We make distinctions between purity and impurity because of our confusion and discrimination. But there can never be true purity while there is discrimination, and discrimination comes from the mind of illusion and vexation.

The true states of permanence, joy, self and purity refer to nirvana; but if, when you enter nirvana there are still four virtues, then it is really attachment and you have not entered it. These so-called four virtues are only goals that lead us toward nirvana. Upon entering nirvana, there is no discrimination left, and therefore no need to speak of true virtues of permanence, joy, self and purity. Likewise, the three bodies of the Buddha exist only from the point of view of ordinary sentient beings. They exist for the sake of sentient beings.

Song of Mind

The next line says, "The three bodies have always existed." The three bodies refer to different aspects of the Buddha and are called Dharmakaya, Samboghakaya and Nir-manakaya.

The Dharmakaya, or the Body of Essential Nature, is that which is universal and unmoving. This body, or aspect, of the Buddha does not exist in any particular location, shape, or form. It is universally existent.

The Sambhogakaya, which can be understood as the Reward or Enjoyment Body, is that aspect, or body, which exists in the pure lands of the Buddhas after one attains Buddhahood. It is not perceived by sentient beings. Only Buddhas are aware of this body. There can be sentient beings in this pure land, but the pure land they perceive will not be the same as that which the Buddha perceives. Only bodhisattvas above the first bhumi will be able to perceive the Sambhogakaya of that particular Buddha, but even so, what they will see is their perception, not the Buddha's.

We may think we all see the same Ch'an hall, but, in fact, everybody sees something different. Some of you think there are ghosts here. Perhaps what you see as ghosts I see as Buddhas, bodhisattvas and arhats. Because we have different mental states we see different things; so even if people reside in the pure land of a particular Buddha, they do not see what that Buddha sees.

As a matter of fact, I do see ghosts in this Ch'an Hall, but they are not the ghosts you might be thinking of. One participant said she saw the ghosts of dead people. What I see are the ghosts of all of you here. You have spent your entire lives with ghosts. You deal with the ghosts of your habits, preconceptions, vexations, greed, anger, arrogance and doubt. Your ghosts are with you now, even as you listen to this lecture, even as you meditate.

The Nirmanakaya, also known as the Transformation Body or Incarnation Body of the Buddha, is that aspect of the Buddha which delivers sentient beings, and appears anytime and anywhere to do so. The Nirmanakaya of a Buddha can come in two forms. One (Incarnation Body) is that which comes to the world through human birth, as in the case of Sakyamuni Buddha. The other (Transformation Body) can appear in the form of a Buddha, but it can be in any possible shape or guise. Whatever helps you in your practice and life should be recognized as the Nirmanakaya of a Buddha.

Someone, unaware even that he or she is doing so, may help you on the path of practice. That person, at that time and in that sense, is the Nirmanakaya of a Buddha. The help may be noticeably positive, or it may seem to be negative or hurtful; but if it directs you further in the practice of the Dharma, it is the help of the Nirmanakaya of a Buddha. As practitioners, we should consider all sentient beings as the Nirmanakayas of innumerable Buddhas. It could be a friend, stranger, or adversary; or a spider, fly, or rat. Everybody, everything, is the Nirmanakaya of a Buddha.

Song of Mind

The six sense organs contact their realms;

Discrimination is not consciousness.

These lines refer to those beings who have already revealed their Buddha-minds. Such people still have full use of their six senses, but these senses are no longer controlled by ordinary consciousness; rather, they are functions of wisdom. Ordinary consciousness is emotional and involves attachment. Wisdom derives from non-attachment. At another time, I spoke of fundamental wisdom and acquired wisdom. It can be understood like this: fundamental wisdom is that which arises when one is enlightened. Putting this wisdom to use through the six sense organs is acquired wisdom.

Here we are speaking of bodhisattvas and Buddhas. You are different. Whatever phenomena arise while you are meditating is illusory. One of you, while meditating today, thought you saw and caught a rabbit. I also see that many of you are disturbed by flies that have found their way into the Ch'an Hall. Obviously, there are no rabbits in this building, but from a practitioner's point of view, you should see all phenomena, including rabbits and flies, as illusory.

While you are meditating, do not allow your mind to interact with these external phenomena and appearances. Your mind should be undisturbed by whatever happens. Regard everything as illusion. Regard yourself as a Buddha statue. Is a statue disturbed by flies? A statue is unmoving, whereas a fly moves. Turn your body into a statue and work with your moving mind.

For those who are enlightened, the six senses still make contact with the environment, but the individuals are disturbed by nothing, whether it be an annoying fly or beautiful music. We are not at this level. We need to cultivate ourselves. First, stay on your method and disregard whatever is happening. Second, no matter what is happening to you, treat it as having nothing to do with you. We do not have to be enlightened to emulate this attitude. This should be your attitude while you meditate. Daily life is different. In daily life, be mindful. Whatever you are doing, wherever your hands are, that is where your mind should be. This is good practice. You may not become enlightened over- night, but you will be on a good path.


Copyright © 2001
Dharma Drum Mountain