Volume 17, Number 3
This magazine is published quarterly by the Institute of Chung-Hwa Buddhist Culture, Chan
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İChan Meditation Center
Teacher-Advisor: Shi-fu (Master) Venerable Dr. Sheng-yen
Editors: Chris Marano
Staff: Guo-gu Shi, Giora Carmi, Lisa Commager, Stuart
Lachs, Harry Miller, linda Peer, Alan Rubinstein, Nora Ling-yun
Shih, Ming-yee Wang, Dorothy Weiner
Song of Mind of Niu-t'ou
Fa-jung (Part 17)
Commentary by Master Sheng-yen
One of a series of lectures given during retreat at the Ch'an Center, Elmhurst, Queens, New York.
The Song of Mind continues:
Originally there is nothing to obtain;
Now what use is there in discarding?
When someone claims to see demons,
We may talk of emptiness,
Yet the phenomena are there.
If someone appears to be unconcerned with gain or loss, there are a couple of possibilities. There is a chance that this person is deeply enlightened. Another possibility is that the person is apathetic and lazy. I recently met a young man that fits the second description. He does not want to continue with school, or work, or do anything. His mother scolded him, "How come you're so lazy? Look at all the good things your friends are accomplishing. Have you no intention of achieving anything?"
He answered, "So what? What do these great achievements get you anyway? How many beds must you own in order to sleep? How many stomachs do you need in order to eat? How many names must you have? People sleep and eat, so do I. Maybe my bed isn't as comfortable as theirs, but I'm not complaining."
I see that some of you are nodding in recognition. I imagine, then, that you know people like this. I might even be describing you. Perhaps such people can live comfortable lives and be happy. But are they are enlightened? Have they attained Buddhahood? Is this what you have come to retreat for?
There was a monk like this at the monastery in Taiwan. As a youth, he was already lazy. He had to be prodded and scolded to go to elementary school. The same thing happened with high school. He preferred hanging out in stores and leafing through comic books. How his parents ever got him to go to college I'll never know, but he reluctantly applied and was accepted to a mediocre school, where he did what he had to and nothing more. He took night classes at a leisurely pace and graduated well after four years. After finishing college, he had no desire to do anything. His attitude was this: "I've already become a monk, so why bother with such things?" In fact, he had become a monk at the age of twelve. It was my master who accepted him, but then he pawned him off on me.
Well, of course I scolded him because he did not do his share of the chores. Actually, he did not do much of anything. To an outside observer, my approach probably seemed harsh. Other disciples reproached me: "Shih-fu, you shouldn't scold him. It's obvious that he is deeply enlightened. His actions conform to that of an enlightened person. He truly understands that there is nothing to be done in this world. It's us, the unenlightened fools, who run around like chickens without heads, making all kinds of trouble for ourselves. If you don't believe us, look to the
Platform Sutra, where Hui-neng says the enlightened person has no liking or disliking. He can put aside his work and lie down. He can rest."
Well, these disciples were right about one thing. This lazy monk was a first-class sleeper. He had no problem with taking only one meal per day, which was impressive to the other monks, but he was very protective of his sleep. He went to bed earlier and got up later than everyone else. When I questioned him on this, he said, "Shih-fu, it's not my problem that you concern yourself with work and affairs that you give importance to. To me they are trivial and not worth my time." Such trivialities included washing his clothes. He would never wash his
socks, just use them over and over, turning them inside out again and again until they were so unbearable that he would throw them away. When I criticized him in front of others, quite a few disciples defended him: "Shih-fu, you shouldn't scold him. He has his own reasons, his own perspective."
"What perspective might that be?" I asked.
"It is you and others who feel it is necessary to wash one's feet and socks, but must it be for everyone? Do oxen and cattle worry about washing their feet? They are his feet and socks, not yours. If you think his socks reek, that's
your problem, not his."
Eventually, this monk left me. Now he has his own temple! He is actually an easy-going person with a kind nature. Nothing seems to bother him. He is popular with elderly women. Maybe they wash his socks now. So what is the moral of this story? Perhaps I have been a fool my entire life, one of those chickens without a head.
Actually, I tell this story to show you how people can easily be fooled by the actions of others, or even by their own actions. If you look deep enough and twist meanings around enough, you can get the scriptures to justify any of your actions. The point is, this monk had no genuine wisdom. He was lazy, plain and simple. If his actions bespoke wisdom, I would have known. It is a pity, because some of his characteristics were admirable. His detachment from material wealth and his
easy-going nature would have made a good foundation for practice. On the other hand, he serves a purpose for people who are drawn to that kind of personality. Maybe you would prefer his teachings to mine. If so, after this retreat I will give you directions to his temple.
So, when I say that you come to retreat not to gain things but to lose things, I am not extolling the virtues of laziness. By gaining, I mean more attachments and vexation. You cannot gain wisdom by wanting it or trying to wrestle it under your control. That only creates expectation and anxiety. Would you think you have failed on this retreat if seven days passed and you never cried or screamed or experienced anything to talk about? If that is what you want from a retreat, then I can save you a lot of time, effort and money. You can have any of those experiences at your local movie theater. If, after
seven days, you can say that you worked diligently on your method most of the time, then you have succeeded. You may walk away thinking you have gained nothing and lost nothing, but I guarantee you the retreat will have its effect on you. You just may not realize it for a while. My only requirement is that you make good use of your time and of this environment, which is especially designed for focused, uninterrupted practice. If you spend your seven days sitting in a soft, comfortable haze, you are wasting your time. Then I would say that that lazy monk might be more of what you are seeking in a teacher.
Living a well-disciplined life is an invaluable asset. Being mindful as much as possible is worth more than a precious jewel. If the teachings and experience of this retreat can instill in you these values, even partially or for a short while, then you have not wasted your time. And all you have to do is work on your method. Perhaps you are thinking, "Isn't it still gaining something if I become disciplined and mindful?" For people who have not attained the level of no-mind, there are still such things as gain and loss: gain of wisdom, loss of vexation, gain of merit and virtue, loss of karmic obstructions, gain of clarity, loss of scatteredness and confusion.
If you strike a match to illuminate a dark room, you can claim that you have gotten light. However, striking a similar match outside on a sunny day would be quite meaningless.
Fundamentally, you are limitless, but only when there is no mind. As long as there is a mind, you have limits. You are bounded. When there is no mind, there is no self and therefore nothing to lose or
gain. But when you practice, you begin in a dark room. That dark room is your self-centeredness. You practice to let go of this self-centeredness. When you completely let go of it, that is the state of no-mind. Then there is no longer a dark room to illuminate. You are already in broad daylight.
Buddhadharma offers you the guidelines and instructions by which to let go of this
self-centeredness. Begin by taking the Four Great Vows, especially the first, which is to deliver all sentient beings. When you think less about your own desires and turn your attention to the needs of others, your self-centeredness will naturally lessen. Recognize the existence of sentient beings
and try to act for their sake first, not your own. Similarly, recognize and pay respect to the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma,
This may sound artificial or phony to you. You might be thinking: "I came here to meditate, not save the world. How can I help others if I don't take care of myself first? Do I have to help others at all, especially all these innumerable sentient beings the vow speaks of? How can helping others, but not myself, lessen my self-centeredness? In fact, it might make me resentful and miserable, which would make my self-centeredness even harder to bear." It is natural to think these thoughts. When you first begin to practice, it is the Four Great Vows and Three Jewels which are unnatural. In fact, the four vows are almost unimaginable in their full meaning. Nonetheless, I suggest that they are worth your time, even if you do not really respect or know why you should respect the Three Jewels, and even if you do not have an intention to help all, or even many, sentient beings. It is like putting on a new suit. At first it is stiff and uncomfortable. You are aware of it all the time and it feels awkward. But eventually it begins to feel more and more comfortable, until it is part of you, like a second skin. It is only after practicing for a long time and having deep experiences that you will understand why the Three Jewels and Four Great Vows are worthy of your respect. How deep a person's attainment is is directly proportional to how much respect he or she has for the Three Jewels; the Four Great Vows, and sentient beings.
The great practitioners can be recognized by their great service. And because they have little or no self-centers, they are also humble. There is no such thing as a proud and arrogant bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas do not dwell on or brag about their compassionate acts. From their perspective, they are not helping sentient beings. It is the work of the Three Jewels. In the eyes of a bodhisattva, sentient beings are helped and delivered by their own merit and actions. As an analogy, look at us right here. Am I saving you? Am I delivering you? Who is doing the work? It is you who are working hard on your methods. It is you who are changing your attitudes. What you do has nothing to do with me. I really have done nothing. It is not me who helps you, but the Three Jewels. But that is my perspective. You might think I am a great master and feel you owe me a great debt. That is your perspective. Hopefully, you also feel indebted to the Three Jewels. Actually, feeling indebted to me and to the Three Jewels is not a bad thing. If you did not have this attitude, your
self-centeredness would be swelling with pride: "It is I who meditate. It is I who study and learn the Dharma. It is I who guided myself through the obstacles of practice and pointed myself in the right direction. It is I who pulled myself along when the going was rough. It is because of hard work and ingenious understanding that I am where I am today." I. I. I. One would have no difficulties pointing out this person's
self-centeredness. The goal of practice is to free ourselves from such attachment.
The Karmapa, head of one of the branches of Tibetan Buddhism, recently visited the Bodhi House in Long Island, New York. A religion professor showed the Karmapa a collection of sutras in his library. The Karmapa did not understand English or Chinese, but when he saw the sutras written in Tibetan, he prostrated three times. Another person in attendance said, "Your Holiness, you are the Karmapa. You are ultimately enlightened, the equivalent to the Buddha. These sutras are of no use to you. Why do you prostrate?"
In answer, the Karmapa prostrated three more times, and when he finished he said, "Others may say I am the Buddha, but I am not the Buddha." Without Buddhadharma, we would not know how to practice. Hence, the Tripitaka (the canon of Buddhist scriptures) is the relic of Buddha's Dharma body. The Karmapa, of course, recognizes this and so has great respect for the sutras.
If we want to attain the level of no gain or loss, we must first free ourselves from our strong attachment to our self-centers. The freer we are from our self-centers, the closer we are to no gain or loss.
"When someone claims to see demons, we may talk of emptiness, yet the phenomena are there." What or who are these demons the song speaks of? Are they the kind with horns and sharp teeth and pointy tongues? Have you seen such demons? What are the demons in your mind like?
The Surangama Sutra speaks of many different kinds of demons. There are demons that arise from within your mind and there are demons that come from outside, the so-called heavenly demons. It takes a great practitioner to attract these heavenly demons. You do not have to worry about such demons. You have plenty of your own to keep you occupied, those being the demons created by your own mind.
Demons come in many guises. For instance, you are meditating well, and then suddenly you are filled with thoughts of your partner or teacher or child. Sometimes it so powerful it seems that this person is standing right in front of you. These thoughts and ideas, true or false, are demons that come from your own mind. It does not mean the people in your thoughts are demons. You do not have to scold them when you return home. It is your own mind which conjures these ideas - these demons - and hinders your practice.
All mental activities which obstruct you are demons. They need not be horrifying or painful. As long as they keep you from practicing, they are demons. As practitioners, you must train your minds. You accomplish this by relying on Buddhadharma, which teaches the fundamental principles of the Buddha, as well as how to practice and what methods to practice. Hence, such words or descriptions, even though they are empty, are still of great use.
All of the teachings of Buddhadharma are meant to help you reduce your attachment to self-center. To do this, you must first become master of your own body and then master of your own mind. Do not let your body dictate how you will feel. If you feel discomfort because of sitting too long in one position, think of it as a pleasant feeling instead and go on with your practice. If sleepiness seems to overtake you for no reason at all, tell yourself you are not tired and keep practicing. This is being master of your body.
As for controlling your mind, when wandering thoughts come, ignore them. If you find that you are already lost in wandering thoughts, pull your mind back to the method. Actually, everything has to do with the mind - wandering thoughts, pain, itchiness, even the teachings and methods of practice. Fundamentally, they are empty, yet for us they exist; and some, like the teachings and methods, are vitally important.
This was my third seven-day retreat. I got a lot of work done, but it seems now like a drop in the bucket of the work I have to do.
During the four months prior to the retreat I'd been living with lots of stress and had not been practicing well. I had been looking forward to putting everything down and making retreat, but that proved easier said than done, and I spent the first day and a half gradually letting go of tension. Even after I quieted down my method (Silent Illumination) seemed a little distant, as if I were shining a dim light through a slight fog onto an uneasy stillness. My initial interview with Guo-chou Shih helped me to focus: I went back to my body as the root of the method, which helped me to relax more fully, which in turn allowed my qi to settle and my mind to clear.
Shih-fu spoke of the "tight" practice of Master Qu-ai of Iron Mountain: "tight" as in "water tight," "closely continuous without any gaps," "like the silver mountain and the iron wall." All the myriad things that are like this began to arise in my mind, but I put them down and just tried to listen like this. Back on the cushion it was still like this - still, clear and strong - and I saw myself sitting, reflected in the environment looking out from beneath my own eyebrows.
Then I must have begun using too much force, too much enthusiasm, not enough care. I started having to hang on to it; I needed the strength of my gaze to pin myself in the present. I became aware of an undercurrent of frantic mental activity, not like thought, more like noise, like fireworks. I tried to simply watch, but it became too compelling, or I had tired myself out and it pulled me right off my seat. I requested an interview.
Guo-chou Shih was once again a great help. He spoke of the "tight" way of being a "soft" way, and I was reminded of Shih-fu's teaching that the method should be like a gently flowing brook, perhaps only a trickle, but continuous. I went back to work and over the next two days was able, intermittently, to refine it. This was very different from before; it was not big and strong, but delicate, like reaching out and touching a swimming fish.
At lunch on the last day Shih-fu told a story of a man, condemned to death, whose life was to be spared if he could carry a bowl brimful of oil over a torturous obstacle course without spilling a single drop. He did so, but then spilled out the oil, for he no longer feared death. Shih-fu challenged us to spend our last afternoon of the retreat using our methods "without spilling a single drop."
As he spoke I knew how it felt to be that way, to guard my method with that much care. I dusted the library books that way and went down into the Hall that way and sat with an awareness that was spacious and tight, like strong silk.
I could only do it for about half the afternoon. After that, something arose in me that wanted to stop practicing, that wanted to let everything go. I judged this as wrong and resisted it, but at the same time my thoughts began to wander over how the previous two hours had demonstrated to me that the "mindfulness" I normally practice is actually like cheese cloth: it looks continuous from a distance, but seen up close it is mostly gaps. I also thought about why it is that Shih-fu can "inspire" me to levels of practice I rarely see on my own. And I thought about the fact that whenever I have wandering thoughts I want to put them down, but that this time, I wanted to put practice down and think about these things.
by Guo-yuan Shi
Memoirs of a Monk's Journey to Thailand
Part Three: Ajahn
Chah's monasteries. Photographs by Guo-yuan Shi
In this article I will talk about two monasteries from the northeastern part of Thailand, both of which were founded by Ajahn Chah, one of Thailand's most famous Buddhist masters. One, the International Forest Monastery, is for the benefit of Western students, while the other, the Forest Monastery in the Swamp, is for the benefit of Thai students.
In his time, Ajahn Chah was the most famous monk in Thailand, known far and wide for upholding the precepts in a strict manner and for training outstanding disciples. By the end of his long career, he had trained many accomplished disciples, who in turn continue to practice and teach in the many monastic institutions of Thailand as well as abroad. Ajahn Chah passed away in January of 1992, but his funeral ceremony did not take place until January of 1993. For the dozen or so days of his funeral, over 500,000 people paid their respects. Disciples from the International Forest Monastery and the Forest Monastery in the Swamp decided to build a stupa to house the relics of Ajahn Chah. With the help of many volunteers and working around the clock, the stupa was finished in six months.
While in Thailand, I heard many stories about Achan Cha's life and experiences, one of which I will relate. This interesting anecdote was told to me by one of the British residents at the International Forest Monastery. When Ajahn Chah was teaching in England, he decided to observe and guide others in the bowl-holding ceremony, which was unfamiliar to English lay practitioners. When they performed this ceremony in a particular area of England, they were arrested and taken to the police station. It is illegal to beg in England, and if you are caught asking for money, you will be arrested. Other Western disciples went to the police station to explain that they were not begging, but practicing a Theravada Buddhist ceremony that was commonplace in Thailand. The story was widely publicized, and, from that time on, monks who wish to observe this ceremony may do so without fear of incrimination. So it seems, Ajahn Chah started the bowl-holding custom in England. It is also one small illustration of his determination and vision.
As I said, the place dedicated to Western students is called the International Forest Monastery. Presently, the head monk is Canadian. Residents are culturally diverse and come from all over Europe, Australia, and the States. There are also a few Asians - including two Thai students - living in the monastery. English is the language of communication.
The International Forest Monastery is known for its simplicity and cleanliness. The monastery buildings are surrounded by many trees, which in turn are surrounded by farm fields. Upon arriving, you feel as if you have entered an isolated, protected realm. The monastery itself is a cool, refreshing place. The building, kitchen, dining area, living quarters and Dharma Hall are all very clean and uncomplicated in their design and appearance. From 3 to 5 PM every day, everybody - long-time residents as well as visitors - gathers to work. Chores include carrying water, chopping wood and cleaning, and are considered part of maintaining the precepts.
Residents are permitted to practice whatever method they are accustomed to using. Those who arrive at the monastery without any particular method of practice are instructed to count breaths or to contemplate the three basic principles (impermanence, suffering and selflessness), or to contemplate impurity, or to contemplate compassion [These practices were described in previous installments of Guo-yuan Shi's memoirs of his visit to Thailand]. However, anyone who is a monk - regardless of whether he is a resident or visitor - must also participate in the bowlholding ceremony. There are no exceptions, and if one day a monk does not participate in the ceremony, then that day he does not eat.
Money is not used at this monastery and monks do not carry money. Residents are taught to be independent. For instance, monks dye their own robes using the natural pigment from the bark of the jackfruit tree. They cut the trunk's bark into pieces and then boil it in a boil box. The clothing is added later and boiled in the dye. Eventually the robes take on the appropriate color.
If monks have to travel, their tickets, travel expenses, itineraries and arrangements are paid for and planned previously by the householder hosts. Monks do not travel unless they have been invited to do so, and they travel to teach and deliver Dharma talks. Lectures are recorded, but tapes are not sold. If people are interested in owning a recorded lecture, they must record it themselves. I was not aware of this rule prior to the Dharma talk I attended, so I made no recording arrangements.
In Thailand, any male over the age of twenty can become a monk, but in this particular monastery a person must first spend a two year training period as a novice monk. If a novice monk wants to become a full monk, he makes fifteen new toothbrushes to give the Precept Master as an offering of gratitude. The novice monk starts with the bark of a certain tree which is said to possess antiseptic properties. He cuts the bark into small pieces to make the bristles of the toothbrush. Toothbrushes made this way are not used for a long time. After one or two uses the toothbrush is thrown out. The present abbot uses such toothbrushes everyday, so his disciples are constantly making toothbrushes for him.
When I was visiting the monastery, there were ten resident monks, three visiting monks, nine novice monks: eight men and one woman who had received the eight precepts. In addition, there were nine male householders and six female householders who had their own residences. If a male householder wishes to stay at the monastery for more than three days, he must wear a white robe and shave his head. Each monk and novice monk has his own tiny hut, and each hut is separated by trees so that the surrounding huts are not visible. It is a very peaceful environment.
Wake-up call is at 3:00 AM. From 3:30 to 5:30, people gather to meditate. At 6:30, the monks, novices and male householders-in-training prepare for the bowl-holding ceremony. Other householders stay in the monastery during this time. 8:30 is meal time, after which people clean their own utensils. All residents then engage in personal practice until 3:00 PM. This period - from 9:30 AM to 3:00 PM is unstructured. As long as no rules are broken, you can do anything you like. From what I observed, it is easy for beginners to waste time and wander about unless they are guided. From 3 to 5, everyone as a group cleans the grounds. Tea time is at 5 PM, and from 7 to 9:30 practitioners meditate, perform daily services, chant and, on occasions, listen to a Dharma talk. I enjoyed this monastery's collective spirit, in which everyone works together in a wholesome, dedicated manner, especially during the afternoon clean-up period.
Every year, also, disciples engage in a long walking practice which literally translates as "walking your feet," but which is referred to by Western students as the "traveling practice." It is a time for training body and mind. Monks put on heavy clothes, even in warm weather, and walk bare-footed. They eat one meal a day and sleep wherever they end up walking at the end of the day. Emphasis is placed on compassion practice because, while walking, particularly in the forest, practitioners may encounter wild animals, poisonous snakes, ghosts, or spirits. At these times, one is placed in the position of having to face one's fears. Ajahn Chah's master,
Ajahn Mun, said that when you have a fear, you must confront and deal with that fear or else it will always be with you and never go away. I met a monk who specialized in this kind of traveling practice. He traveled much of the border territory between Burma and Laos. Few people live in this area, but there is ample opportunity to encounter animals and ghosts. If you panic and run, you may trip and fall over a fallen tree and get killed.
Even on the monastery grounds, people must contend with their fears. Imagine yourself alone in one of these huts, unable to see another hut, and knowing that at any time snakes and scorpions might be crawling in and out of your sleeping quarters. There is no electricity in these huts, only candle light, so it is possible that you might encounter something fearful all by yourself in your sparsely-lit hut. What would you do? Residents are encouraged to contemplate compassion. Some told me that they recite the name of Avalokitesvara. Furthermore, in strictly keeping the precepts, residents of the monastery believe that they reduce the risk of undesirable
incidents because they are protected by Dharma forces. Or, if they were to encounter such circumstances, then by contemplating compassion, they transfer the merit of their practice to the ghosts and wild animals so that they will go away and not be so violent. Some say that a ghost appears before you because it needs somebody to help it to pass on to its next life. By repeating certain sutras and transferring merit to it, you hope to help the ghost to move on to a better life.
About a twenty minute drive from Ajahn Chah's international monastery is his Thai monastery, The Forest Monastery in the Swamp. This monastery, situated in the wetlands, is much larger than the International Monastery. Upon entering the monastery grounds, you first see a three-story building. This is the museum. It holds things related to Buddhism and ancient relics of Thailand. At the center of this museum is an atrium that extends from the first to the third floor. Even though the museum is not large, it has a feeling of spaciousness. Beyond the museum is the lecture hall, a building three times as long and twice the width of the museum. It is used when Dharma lectures are delivered to large groups of people. It is also used for morning and evening services as well as sitting meditation.
The Buddha Hall is built on a compact, high and level hill. Instead of windows it has spaced layers of unconnected walls constructed in a fashion that allows for ample ventilation and rain protection. The Buddha Hall is not very large, but, like the museum, it seems expansive, and when you enter your mind opens along with the open walls. The Buddha Hall holds fifty people comfortably. Specifically, monks use the Hall to chant the precepts. Of the many temples and monasteries I visited, this one left the deepest impression.
Strict adherence to the precepts is emphasized. There is no fear of going hungry, as householders are always making offerings. Residents do not give large-scale Dharma talks. When people come with questions, they answer them and provide them with books. Every two weeks or so, householders come to the monastery and hold the eight precepts for the day, then sleep outdoors in a small mosquito-net tent. The day also includes meditation, morning and evening services, and a Dharma talk.
This monastery also trains monks to be independent. They cut their own robes and dye them to a specific color. They have their own self-made umbrellas during traveling practice. For the bowl-holding ceremony, they construct their own braided support for their own selflacquered bowls. This braiding takes about two weeks to make. While I was visiting, my bowl support broke. Within an hour of asking someone for help, my support was fixed.
In addition to upholding precepts, training includes the observance of a social order in which a young person serves an elder, and, in return, the elder teaches Dharma and proper behavior to the younger person. Young monks must learn the traveling practice. Sometimes they learn from teachers other than their elders. A teacher must know the area well - where to get water, where one is likely to get food by holding the bowl in the morning, where to rest in the evening, and so on.
Thailand's natural resources have been damaged by modernization. There are not many people practicing in the forests anymore. In this sense, traveling practice has changed in its purpose and has become more of a training of body and mind. Some people who like traveling practice do it for many years. Sometimes people travel alone or in small groups of two or three. Other times large groups of 50 to 100 people travel under the guidance of a teacher.
There are numerous women practitioners in this monastery, namely women who have received the eight precepts. They live in an area separate from the monks. As I have said, the precepts are very strict, and if it is ever necessary that a woman needs to visit a monk, she must be accompanied by an older woman.
In all the monasteries I have mentioned - The Monastery of Emptiness, The Garden of Liberation, The Monastery in the Swamp, the International Monastery - monks sleep in huts without electricity. One had the feeling that this was a practice isolated from modern civilization. I had to use a flash light. It reminded me of the center in Wales where Shih-fu guided two Ch'an retreats. One must rely on lamps and candles.
On November 22, 1994,
the author of this poem, riding
the N.Y. subway, clearly saw the
of all conditions. O Senorita,
form is no other than emptiness,
emptiness no other than form; your
form is exactly emptiness, and
emptiness always exists as form.
There is nothing that can be cognized
that isn't exactly this. Self &
other, time and space, aging and
death, the subway, the city, your
Spanish lips, all desire a dream within a
dream as we sit here with
compassionate indifference to that
which has never been and will
never die. It is 5:55,
2nd Ave. and Houston. At
Frutti di Mare my date arrives
45 minutes late. That's OK, I say.
There's no time like this time.
by Paul Weiss.
Lin-chi Ch'an and the Use of Kung-an
by Professor Dan Stevenson
This is the third in a series of articles excerpted
from a forthcoming book entitle Hoofprint of the Ox. It is based on lectures by
Master Sheng-yen, translated, compiled, arranged and edited into its present
form by Professor Dan Stevenson
Hua-t'ou in many respects is closely related to kung-an. The term hua-t'ou itself literally means "head or crux of the saying." Generally this has been interpreted as pointing to the most crucial phrase or question in a kung-an. Thus, working on a hua-t'ou entails singling out the most essential element or issue in a given kung-an and just concentrating on this point, repeating it over and over, while disregarding the rest of the narrative. For example, one of the most famous hua-t'ou comes from the kung-an in which Chao-chou is asked whether dogs have Buddha nature. In response to this question Chao-chou replies, "Wu!" which means, "NO!". The hua-t'ou simply consists of asking, "What is
Hua-t'ou are invariably concise questions like this. Although they are frequently taken from kung-an, sometimes they are not. Questions such as "Who am I?" or "What was I like before I was born?"; "Who is it that is practicing?"; "All things are reducible to the one, but what is the one reducible to?"; or even, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" are all hua-t'ou. If one is a Pure Land practitioner and has been intoning the Buddha Amitâbha's name (Namo O-mi-t'uo-fo) in the hopes of being reborn in the western Land of Highest Bliss, one might ask, "Who is it that is reciting the Buddha's name?" Then it becomes a Ch'an
Compared to the rather lengthy and diffuse kung-an stories, hua-t'ou are poignantly concise. Thus they are powerful tools for summoning up great energy and quickly bringing one's focus to bear on the key issues of practice. As techniques of Ch'an practice, the function of both kung-an and hua-t'ou is to generate what we call "great doubt" (i ch'ing). This doubt represents an inner uneasiness or anxiety - a feeling that there is something missing or unclear in our lives that we must discover. It is a deep tension caused by the feeling that there is something essential that we need to know - that we must know - but that we don't know. This doubt should not be confused with the sort of non-committal doubt that we commonly encounter in our lives. Doubt here is not simple agnosticism or skepticism. Nor is it the sort of temporary confusion over moral position or personal identity that we often encounter in everyday life. It cannot be appeased by simple distraction, explanation or a shift in view. "Great doubt" is a state of all-consuming questioning that, at its deepest, is irresistible and relentless, admitting no solution other than one that totally gets to the bottom of the matter. Ultimately, the issue to be solved is the "great matter of birth and death."
Of course, there are different degrees of doubt. In a small doubt you may get a glimmer or taste of the immense issues at stake in great doubt, but this condition will quickly pass. Intermediate degrees of doubt will last longer, but the energy and depth necessary for it to grow will not be there. In time it too will dissipate. In the case of the major kind of doubt, however, the doubt mass will continue to expand, consuming everything until there is nothing left but total doubt. At this point it is even impossible to stop the doubt. When this occurs, a great explosion will follow. This explosion is enlightenment. Thus, in kung-an and hua-t'ou practice, doubt and enlightenment are intimately related, so that we often say, "Small doubt, small enlightenment; great doubt, deep enlightenment; no doubt, no enlightenment."
Because they provide such a specific and intense point of focus, hua-t'ou can be effective even for one who has never done any practice before. Kung-an are generally quite diffuse. Often they involve a complex series of events, making it is easy for the mind to become distracted or caught up in the peripheral features. Reviewing the kung-an itself, if it is lengthy, can be a burdensome task. To speculate rationally on its features or meaning will be missing the main issue entirely. For these reasons, it is exceedingly difficult to derive any real benefit from kung-an without a significant foundation in Ch'an practice. Should one try to penetrate a kung-an without such a foundation, one really won't know where to begin. In Japan often kung-an are not used until one has experienced an initial breakthrough or a "glimpse into one's true nature" (kenshô). That breakthrough is first achieved through a sharply focused hua-t'ou. Then kung-an are used to further deepen and illumine the practitioner's mind. This is what we mean by a significant foundation in the practice.
Furthermore, the historical context and imagery found in kung-an are from T'ang or Sung period China. Hence they appear quite alien to us today. For Chinese or Japanese Ch'an practitioners who have heard a lot of these kung-an or who are conversant in this culture, the language of the kung-an may be meaningful. But for people who don't share this background using kung-an may give rise to all sorts of spurious activities. Investigating a kung-an becomes more of a study in ancient culture than a grappling with the issue of birth and death. For example, some kung-an contain very bizarre and erratic behavior, and students may think that imitating and indulging in this kind of thing is Ch'an. For this reason I do not normally use kung-an with my American students. Or if I do, I will often just use the situation at hand to create a stimulating opportunity - a living kung-an - with which to spur the student on.
The Practice of Hua-t'ou
In the old days, no conscious preparation was ever given for the practice of hua-t'ou. Great doubt and its workings were not openly discussed, nor was any definite procedure for using hua-t'ou taught. The master would just give the student a hua-t'ou or spark a question in the practitioner's mind and strive to keep him working on it. Concentration on one question or hua-t'ou might last for ten, twenty, even thirty years. Ch'an master Ch'u-shan Shao-ch'i once said, "Pay no heed to whether it is for a long period of time or a short period of time, a hundred days or a thousand days, under formal monastic restraints or not under formal monastic restraints. From the time you first take up the hua-t'ou be utterly decisive and do not let your determination falter, even if after a lifetime of practice you still should fail to get
enlightened." Ch'an master T'ai-hsü instructed, "If you have never experienced enlightenment, sit in cold stillness and investigate [the saying], 'What was my original face before I was born?' for ten, twenty, or thirty
This kind of patience and long-term commitment to Ch'an practice was very much the norm in pre-modern China. Once there was a Ch'an monk who, upon leaving home, took up residence with a certain Ch'an master hoping to learn about Ch'an. But the master just put him to work at menial tasks without giving him any method of practice at all. For a long, long time this monk waited for some instruction, until finally he could restrain himself no longer. He summoned up his nerve, approached the master and asked for instruction in practice, claiming that he would have to go elsewhere unless he got what he wanted. The master responded, "Who is the person who needs instruction? Find me this person and I will give him instruction!" This question itself was a hua-t'ou, and the monk - prompted by his years of growing doubt and anxiety - became utterly absorbed in this hua-t'ou, until he "found the person," so to speak.
In a situation such as this, doubt might be a long time coming, if it comes at all. But when it does appear it will likely be very visceral and very deep. Under such circumstances, the experience of great doubt and the explosion of awakening need happen only once. If the person's practice is thorough and "well-cooked," no further awakening is needed.
Times are different today, however. In this modern world, life is not so simple and routine. People are more preoccupied, stressed, and hurried. Few are willing and able to devote the time and patience necessary to simmer themselves thoroughly on such a low heat. It is the age of the microwave. Thus, despite the old Ch'an spirit of reticence and innocence, the technique of hua-t'ou practice has been increasingly spelled out. The purpose in doing this is to make the benefits of Ch'an practice more accessible to people - to give them a taste of Ch'an more quickly, so that they may develop the aspiration and commitment necessary for extended practice.
As I indicated previously, the aim of hua-t'ou practice is to generate a profound and intensely concentrated sense of doubt. When there is great and all-consuming doubt, there is great awakening; small doubt, small awakening; no doubt, no awakening. In rare instances, there are persons who seem to be born with this doubt. The Ming period Buddhist master, Han-shan Te-ch'ing, for example, writes in his autobiography that when he was three years old he witnessed the death of his uncle. Seeing his uncle's corpse with no sign of life puzzled him quite deeply. Some time later an aunt of his had a child. When he asked his mother where the baby came from she retorted, "Where do you think you came from? Han-shan insists that this question remained with him until the age of twenty-seven, when he finally resolved
Most people, however, do not feel this sort of doubt to any notable degree. Or, if they do, most will take great effort to insulate themselves from it and make it quickly disappear. The purpose of the hua-t'ou is to actually generate or aggravate doubt of this sort, causing one to concentrate on it and nourish it until it becomes great doubt. Some people think that the wording of the hua-t'ou itself is the key factor - that effective progress depends on finding the right formula. They may want to change hua-t'ou time and time again, looking for just the right magical combination of words. To be sure, a master will want to give a student a hua-t'ou that he or she can relate to, a hua-t'ou with which the student can identify his or her deeper spiritual yearnings. But ultimately the power of the hua-t'ou comes from the person, not the hua-t'ou itself.
No hua-t'ou, regardless of how lofty or religiously poignant it is, will move someone who finds things to be satisfactory and who has only a lukewarm interest in the deeper questions of life. Someone like this simply does not care what he was before he was born and what he will be after his death. He will likely get nothing from hua-t'ou practice, no matter how hard he might appear to labor over it. On the other hand, someone with keen karmic roots, like Han-shan Te-ch'ing, could turn almost anything into an effective hua-t'ou. Even the most innocuous events in everyday life can provoke profound spiritual doubt and the need to know.
For the majority of people using hua-t'ou, the essential issue is how to use it to generate and maintain doubt when one feels no real doubt to begin with - how to make the hua-t'ou a "living" issue. If one is investigating the hua-t'ou, "What was my nature before I was born?", one should be obsessed with the need to find one's true nature prior to all the conditioned and learned traits that one has acquired since birth. But when such serious and decisive doubt is lacking, even the most intense questioning will likely be concerned more with how to experience great doubt than the actual experience of great doubt per se. One will then be a step removed from real doubt, and concentration on the hua-t'ou will become very artificial and sporadic. Left to flounder like this, years can go by without any real progress. How, then, does one develop genuine doubt by using a
The dynamics of hua-t'ou practice are in many ways closely tied to the principles of meditative development that we outlined in a previous article (Concentrating the Mind): First one moves from scattered a mind and an artificial type of questioning, to a simple and unified mind, where concentration and questioning become intensely real and one-pointed. With intense and one-pointed questioning, all doubts and questions are subsumed into a single profound and all-consuming doubt. When this doubt reaches a crescendo, becoming vast and self-sustaining, the explosion of enlightenment finally occurs. Simply put, Buddhist meditation aspires to take the practitioner from the condition of scattered mind, to simplified mind, to unified or one-pointed mind and thought, to nomind or no-thought. Hua-t'ou practice develops in a similar fashion. But the object on which one concentrates is the questioning and doubt itself, rather than the usual objects used for meditative calming and contemplation.
It is extremely difficult and rare to experience great doubt in the beginning. Even a small doubt is hard to generate. Although we hear of Ch'an practitioners in whom great doubt arose right at the start of their practice, as a rule most people will begin with no doubt. It may take considerable practice before genuine spiritual yearning appears and the question posed in the hua-t'ou comes to life.
Concentration on a hua-t'ou before the experience of doubt is similar in procedure and function to the use of classical Buddhist methods for calming and taming the mind (i.e. the five methods for stilling the mind). The practitioner strives to ward off wandering thoughts and drowsiness and keep his or her attention fixed single-mindedly on the object of concentration -- i.e., the hua-t'ou. By repeating the hua-t'ou over and over, the mind is kept alert and clear. If concentration becomes weak or the mind feels dull and drowsy, one should ask the hua-t'ou vigorously, summoning power from the anger and frustration sparked by these obstacles. At the same time, it is important not to allow oneself to become overly excited or impassioned, as these may become impediments themselves.
Most of all, one must not anticipate great doubt or enlightenment, nor preoccupy oneself with artificial efforts to evoke them. Although anger and fierceness are better than laziness, the key thing is to keep one's mind wholly focused on the hua-t'ou, not to fight impassioned battles with wandering thoughts. Wandering thoughts, when discovered, should be promptly dismissed and attention returned immediately to the hua-t'ou. In time such diversions will become fewer and fewer, and concentration on the hua-t'ou will become like a steady stream, infusing and uniting one's whole being. This is the proper condition for generating great doubt.
Often people ask whether it necessary to use words to ask the hua-t'ou. Words seem to lend themselves to speculation or mechanical repetition, both of which would seem to hinder the sort of concentrated doubt that hua-t'ou aspire to evoke. Actually, the use of language is absolutely necessary. Without words to formulate the question, one will just sit wide-eyed staring into muddled blankness, without the slightest chance of producing doubt.
The Ch'an master Hsü-yün interprets the expression "hua-t'ou" to mean the "source of all words". Hua means "words or speech." T'ou means "head or source." Thus hua-t'ou practice actually entails a search for the source of all words and meaning -- the original reality or true nature of mind that is there before all words and discriminations arise.
One might argue that, since the essence of hua-t'ou practice is to get beyond words, one should dispense with active questioning or forget all linguistic discriminations. But in this search for the "source of words" one must begin with the specific hua-t'ou question and follow it to its end.
One must begin with the concrete. Without something concrete to grasp, without anything to hold on to, the mind has nothing around which to collect itself, and there will be no basis for real doubt to take shape. So that we may securely take hold of the hua-t'ou and, from it, generate great doubt, it is most necessary that the hua-t'ou be composed of words.
One must always remember that hua-t'ou is a method of practice, not an end in itself. Using hua-t'ou may be likened to unraveling a long, tangled ball of yarn which is concealed in a basket. You do not know how long the cord is, but you want to straighten it out and find out just exactly what is there. So you begin with the end which is in your hand and gradually work your way to the other end. The yarn is very elastic and will snap back into the basket if you should let go of it. Thus, you must continue to pull without letting up. And if you do stop for a moment, you must never completely let go. Without allowing yourself to become discouraged, you steadily pull out one length after another, pulling and pulling as though the yarn were endless. Then one day you suddenly reach the end, and - whoop! - there is nothing more to pull!
This may seem foolish - posing a problem for ourselves that ultimately proves pointless and just disappears, like a dog chasing its own tail. There is nothing at the beginning when you take up the "tangle of yarn" and make yourself ask the hua-t'ou. And, there is nothing at the end when you finish and the hua-t'ou is gone. But, really, working through the yarn was not foolish. A very significant transformation takes place in the interim, a transformation to which the method of the hua-t'ou is vital, even though it is not the result. Before one takes up a hua-t'ou, the mind is confused and barren of all wisdom. Through the process of hua-t'ou practice confusion itself disappears and wisdom manifests.
Just as with any method of meditative concentration, when thoughts begin to settle and body and mind become unified, one begins to feel unusual energy and power. In the case of the hua-t'ou, this will be accompanied by a deeper and more intense longing for an answer to the hua-t'ou, as though one were glimpsing the real urgency and significance of the question for the first time. This kind of concentration may last for varying stretches of time, but will eventually be broken by pain in the legs, exhaustion, the ending of the meditation period, the arrival of mealtime, and so forth. When the practitioner returns to meditating effectively on the method, it will come back again. This is the small doubt.
Thus, the hua-t'ou is a question which one asks oneself as a means of practice. In the beginning there is no doubt. Small doubt is sufficient to prod one to keep asking the question. If the mind remains continuously on the question, new power is generated and one can reach an intermediate stage of doubt, in which doubt becomes progressively deeper and more sustained. One may experience this to some degree in ordinary daily practice at home. But it is only when one practices intensely for an extended period of time - as in a Ch'an meditation retreat - that one can generate the power and momentum necessary to experience great doubt. When great doubt comes the power is immense. One is no longer aware of one's body, the world, or anything in the entire universe. Only the doubt is left.
At this point one could say that the practitioner is in the condition of unified or onepointed mind. In effect, the all-consuming doubt concentrates body and mind into one thought, leading one into samâdhi. But the questioning and doubt, by their very nature, make it impossible to settle deeply into a quiescent state of samâdhi. Instead, the concentrated power of doubt leads headlong into the explosion of wisdom. Hence, while the hua-t'ou method avails itself of the traditional logic of samatha or meditative calm and concentration, in its long term aim, it is quite different from such classical Buddhist samatha methods as the five practices for stilling the mind.
There is an old analogy in Ch'an that compares the process of attaining enlightenment to passing a camel through the eye of a needle. It is also said that, to pass into the world of Ch'an, one must be utterly naked, without a thread of silk on one's body. In effect, this means that, in order to realize Ch'an, one's mind must be utterly naked, without a single thought, attachment, or reservation. It may not hold onto or retain anything, even its own form. This complete nakedness of mind and soul is comparable to the state of the practitioner who is on the brink of explosion. Doubt consumes and strips this person of everything, even himself. In fact, great doubt is often characterized as the "great mass or ball of doubt" (ta i t'uan) or "single mass of doubt." When consumed by great doubt, it seems as though one is surrounded entirely by doubt, cut off from every living thing in the world. One cannot ignore it or get rid of it, swallow it or spit it out. Nor can one resolve it. If the bell rang at the end of the meditation period, one would not hear it. If it were meal time, one might go to eat, but be oblivious of the food. Even in bed, one would be absorbed only in the doubt. This may continue uninterruptedly from day to night, as though one were some type of mindless automaton. After a few days, however, a great explosion will surely occur.
How quickly and easily a practitioner produces great doubt depends on the person's karmic capacity. Great doubt and the explosion of awakening may come spontaneously to people with keen karmic capacity. Such persons may foster great doubt and attain enlightenment even without the guidance of a master. Persons of mediocre karmic roots who try to practice on their own may, in time, produce great doubt. But without the guidance of an experienced teacher they will most likely fall into demonic states of mind. In the case of persons with dull karmic roots, even small doubt is extremely difficult to generate.
Since it does provide an effective means for concentrating the mind, the hua-t'ou method can, at least in theory, be used by virtually anyone. But given the difficulty it takes to generate power from the hua-t'ou when one's mind is scattered and untamed, I usually do not assign hua-t'ou right away. Initially I prescribe other, more traditional Buddhist methods of meditation - such as concentration on the breath (ânâpâna-smrti) - to help my students calm and focus their minds. After they have generated some power of concentration with these methods, I give them hua-t'ou. If they are unable to use the hua-t'ou effectively, I will have them return to the previous method of concentration.
In the course of a week-long Ch'an retreat, the ordinary student may not be able to summon enough power and momentum to ignite a truly major explosion of wisdom. But it is possible for a Ch'an master to produce a minor explosion from a small doubt, even though it is weak and intermittent. While such an experience is in no way equivalent to seeing fully into one's true nature, a minor explosion like this can be of great benefit to the practitioner, especially in this day and age, when most people don't have the time, circumstances or motivation to devote themselves to steady Ch'an practice. Though it is incomplete, such a minor experience will shake you up so that you feel mentally and spiritually reborn. The world will seem quite different from the way you previously experienced it, and, as a result, your faith and zeal for the practice will deepen.
 Chu-hung, Ch'an-kuan ts'e-chin. See Fujiyoshi Jikai, ed. Zenkan , Zen no Goroku No. 19. Tokyo:
Chikuma Shoten, 1970, pp. 133.
 Chu-hung, Ch'an-kuan ts'e-chin. Fujiyoshi, p. 125.
 See Chang, C.C., The Practice of Zen, NY: Harper & Row, 1959; also, Lu, K'uan-yu
(Charles Luk), Practical Buddhism, London: Rider, 1971.
 For Hsü-yün's discussion of hua-t'ou, see Lu, K'uan-yu (Charles Luk), Ch'an and Zen Teaching,
First Series. London: Rider, 1960, p. 23.
Anecdotes from Retreat Reports?
In a lunch-time lecture on retreat, Shih-fu told us that, in our everyday life, it is smart to have back-up plans and alternatives. We need "safe roads" so we can feel secure. But in the practice that is impossible. A person works hard because of faith - faith in the master, faith in the method, or faith in oneself. In light of this, a person must be willing to jump off a cliff. There is no safety, no security, just the jump.
Two vital points were made by Shih-fu during retreat that I managed to ignore in my fundamental blindness. The first, that practice should flow like water, using little energy yet possessing incredible power. The second, quoting a line from an ancient Ch'an master, "Take a step back and open your grasping hands." To recall these teachings will serve me well all my days.
After a retreat meal was finished, Shih-fu said, "There is an ancient Chinese story of an
old and experienced fisherman who fished with a straight hook. He would go fishing and say to the fish in the ocean, 'If you want to be caught, fine. If you do not want to be caught, that's fine
too.' This is how one practices. Just calmly and attentively watch your rod."