The Heart Sutra
The thirteenth lecture in a series delivered
by Shih-fu to students attending a special class at the Ch'an Center.
The Heart Sutra continues: "With nothing
to attain, Bodhisattvas, relying on prajna-paramita, have no obstructions
in their minds." What is meant by obstructions and mind? In the English
translation of the sutra, we have already come across the term "mind" a
few times, but, of the 260 Chinese characters that make up the Heart Sutra,
this is the first use of the character for "mind." This is the mind that
the Diamond Sutra speaks of when it says, "The mind arises without abiding."
"Abiding" means attachment, so the mind
that the Diamond Sutra speaks of is different from the minds of ordinary
people. For ordinary people, there is never a mind without abiding. Whether
the mind is clear, scattered, tormented, calm, filled with hatred or loving-kindness,
it is still a mind that abides. The Diamond Sutra says, however, that even
in a state of non-abiding, the mind still arises, or functions. It is the
mind that arises without abiding which the Heart Sutra makes reference
to in the lines above. The mind that arises without abiding belongs to
one who has left behind self-centeredness. It is the mind of one who is
A Ch'an poem describes the mind after enlightenment
as clouds among tall mountains. It may seem that the clouds come from and
return to the mountains, but in reality the clouds move around and are
not obstructed by mountains. Undoubtedly, these clouds exist, yet they
have no definite form and substance, and they are not obstructed by anything
on earth or in the sky. Liberated beings, having no obstructions in their
minds, are like clouds among mountains. Although their minds are unobstructed,
they are still able to function, just as clouds may provide shade and precipitation.
Ordinary beings may think they understand
this mind, but they grasp it only through analogy. It takes personal experience,
in fact enlightenment, to truly understand it. In truth, there is no mind
and there are no obstructions. Furthermore, you cannot have one without
the other. If there is no mind, there will be no obstructions; and if there
are no obstructions, there can be no mind.
As practitioners, we can only contemplate
the mind with obstructions. It is impossible for us to contemplate the
mind without obstructions. There's no such thing. Any thought associated
with a self, or any attachment, or any vexation, is an obstruction. These
things obstruct wisdom, or the awakening of Bodhi.
The Chinese character translated as "obstruction"
also has the connotation of "illness." A mind that abides has many attachments
and vexations and fundamentally cannot be at ease. As an analogy, when
the body is healthy and working smoothly, most people are unaware of it.
Only when it aches does one become aware of the body. The same is true
for the mind, but even more so. We are always tied to or at odds with one
thing or another and are never fully at ease. But when all attachments
depart, we call that the mind without obstruction.
Sometimes, it may seem you are at ease
and your life and mind do function smoothly: after a restful sleep, perhaps,
or when there are no troubles in your life. These times are short-lived,
however, and obstructions soon return. Also, there are subtle vexations
that are ever present, whether or not you are aware of them. Most of us
are aware only of the most obvious vexations. Anything and everything can
be an obstruction and cause vexations to arise in our minds. One I am sure
everyone is familiar with is getting caught in traffic when you have a
pressing engagement. And things that normally do not cause vexations may
do so if you are already obstructed by something else. For instance, the
same enthusiastic child may be a joy if your time is free or a nuisance
if you are tired or preoccupied.
One purpose of practice is to help one
become more aware of mental obstructions and how they affect our thoughts,
speech and actions. In maintaining such awareness, obstructions will naturally
and gradually lessen.
The reason why we have obstructions is
because we do not recognize that the five skandhas and the Twelve Links
of Conditioned Arising are empty. Of course, if we truly understood this,
we would already be enlightened and there would be no need for contemplation.
Until we are enlightened, however, we need to contemplate the mind and
how it reacts to obstructions.
The next two lines say, "Having no obstructions,
there is no fear, and departing far from confusion and imaginings..."
When the mind has problems, there will
be obstructions, and when there are obstructions, there will be fears,
such as the fear that what one has will be lost, or the fear that one will
not gain what one desires. People fear what they know and what they do
not know; they fear the future as well as the past. People purposely do
things to scare themselves, such as going to horror movies or riding on
roller coasters. Why would anyone want to do this? The answer is that we
cannot help it.
We have fear because we do not feel safe.
We feel threatened, whether it be our health, our security, our ideas,
our perceptions, our feelings, or any number of other things. Fear stems
from our attachment to ourselves. We see ourselves as being permanent,
but we must come to directly realize that everything about ourselves is
transient and constantly changing. To come to such awareness requires contemplation.
An elderly gentleman came to me seeking
advice. He confided that he was not so much afraid of death as he was afraid
that others were taking advantage of him. He said he spent all of his time
giving to others, yet people always wanted more. For him, death was not
a threat, but a release from this other fear.
I told him we all come to this world for
different reasons, but that they can be grouped into three large categories.
Some come to this world solely to pay back previous debts. Others come
to borrow, or accumulate, more debt. Still others come to lend things,
or help others. The elderly man was then happy, deciding that he had returned
to the world in order to repay old debts and give things away. This man
is not enlightened, so he still has fears, but, with a better understanding
of cause and consequence and an acceptance of karma, his fears have been
Once we understand the nature of our fears,
they will no longer be a problem. The first order of business, though,
is to realize that we do have fears. We must be able to acknowledge and
identify them. Of course, if we were to eliminate our self-centeredness,
all fears would disappear. To truly have no fear you must contemplate the
emptiness of the self and the five skandhas.
In the line, "departing far from confusion
and imaginings," the word translated as confusion literally means "inversion"
or "upside-down view." It refers to the four major inverted views: perceiving
suffering to be happiness; perceiving impurity to be purity; perceiving
impermanence to be permanence; perceiving selflessness to be self. I have
explained all of these before, in one form or another. Basically, suffering
arises because of our misperceptions regarding such matters.
The term "imaginings" might be better understood
as "dreaming." Dreaming comes in many forms. Making unrealistic plans is
a form of dreaming. For example, reading about a millionaire and imagining
that you are that person, fantasizing about how you made the money and
what you will do with your riches, is a dream. After all, what do you know
about the causes and conditions of other people? Everyone is different.
People have their own characteristics, their own karma. Some people live
their entire lives dreaming of a different life, never even trying to realize
it. Others dream another life and try to make a go of it, either successfully
or unsuccessfully. They, too, do not realize they are dreaming. Others
realize that they are dreaming about another life and will themselves to
awaken. In this case, I am not talking about awakening to enlightenment,
but merely waking up from completely unrealistic dreams to a more sober,
For beginning practitioners, "departing
far from confusion and imaginings" means trying to maintain a mind of clarity
and sobriety. The goal of practice is to awaken from the dream of the self.
This is enlightenment. Once liberated, one no longer dreams a life. There
is no more, "I want to do this and I don't want to do that." Instead, one
simply responds to the environment and to the needs of others, naturally
and spontaneously doing the right thing.
We cannot contemplate what it is like to
depart from confusion and imaginings; rather, we must contemplate confusion
and imaginings directly. It is similar to contemplating obstructions and
fears. When you experience deep vexation, such as greed or anger, and are
suffering, ask yourself, "Am I experiencing confusion?" What is it that
is causing you to have such strong vexation and suffering? It is time to
reflect on your thoughts, moods, intentions. It is time to reflect on the
four inverted views.
We can begin by reflecting on whether or
not we are dreaming. Sometimes we will not know until afterwards, when
everything has already fallen apart. That is a good start. Seeing afterward
that it was all a dream will lessen your vexation. With practice, you will
realize you are dreaming while you are in the middle of a dream. That is
better, because whether the dream is painful or pleasurable, you will realize
it is only a transient illusion and will not become attached to it. That
is deep practice. Finally, you will awaken altogether from the dream of
life, the dream of the self, the dream of ignorance. That is liberation.
It was my great good fortune to attend
the November seven-day retreat. Again, I was accompanied by two good friends
from our small Ontario Sangha who shared with everyone in their efforts
during this very precious and unrivaled opportunity. I believe their efforts
will go a long way in helping others to follow the Buddha's Way far into
This is my third retreat at the Ch'an Meditation
Center. From my first retreat with Shih-fu, I have experienced a wonderful
upheaval in practice. Hua-t'ou practice is no longer as greatly influenced
by the grim do-or-perish-doing attitude I carried with me for many years.
Such attitude served well in the past in focusing energies and attitudes
toward practice, but I feel its repercussions in my daily life have left
a residue that has led to many great difficulties. I used to live to go
to sesshins where the environment was battlefield-like, and working on
a hua-t'ou was "like having a red hot iron ball stuck in one's throat."
Perhaps due to the force with which I threw myself into such a mind set,
I continuously found myself outside of sesshins encountering similar circumstances
both in business and in relationships with those close to me. I looked
at these situations as opportunities to practice under seemingly insurmountable
odds, but at times wondered why they came up in the first place. I managed
to get by only due to the fine qualities of those close to me and to the
unlikely intervention of bodhisattvas in unusual ways.
I would like to deeply thank Shih-fu for
saying that working on a hua-t'ou is like having a very tasty candy stuck
in your throat. You can't swallow it or get it back into your mouth, but
its sweetness and flavor keep you working on. To hear this was like having
a heavy suit of plate armor lifted from my shoulders and I no longer look
at what I felt was a warrior-like karma as being an asset, but rather something
to dissolve in its coarser aspects without losing the sharp sword of spiritual
In the past, I was trained in associating
the word Mu with deep questioning. Loud "Muing" was, when neighbors weren't
in close proximity, a part of retreat and all participants were encouraged
to yell Mu from their depths to strengthen their questioning. In later
years I had used this Mu or Wu during sesshins in its strong silent form
whenever thoughts filled my mind, and usually it worked. The strong Mu
and its associated mindset would fill the mind, and the thoughts disappeared.
Continuously doing this usually ensured the thoughts stayed away. However,
such a practice was at times very strenuous to keep up.
It was at this retreat that I decided to
try something new. Shih-fu kept mentioning over and over to relax the body
and mind first, then begin working on the hua-t'ou. This relaxation was
not part of my "Wu?" and during my interview with Guo-yuan Shih I mentioned
that I needed to change the way I worked. This talk was very helpful in
affirming my new approach, and I took it to the mat. While sitting I abandoned
the process of using the word Wu to arouse questioning and tried to remain
relaxed. The compelling question -- the hua-t'ou -- still remained without
the word. However, I was now aware of a substratum of defiling thoughts
that came and went from the mind like ghosts.
It is now clear to me that my use of a
word like Wu was nothing more than the application of a thick layer of
pavement over the weeds of defilement. These weeds had always been present
underneath, but after being paved over by a strong Mu or Wu such defilements
were hidden from sight -- sometimes changing form and becoming tensions
-- so that I was not aware of them. This is good news! With gratitude to
Shih-fu a new and infinitely vast opening in hua-t'ou practice has opened
for me allowing a clear way to more fully taste the sweetness of the candy
stuck in my throat.
On the last night Shih-fu gave me a pack
of candies to open. They were contained in one of the finest examples of
modern packaging I had ever encountered. I went about opening them in my
usual way, and when all else failed, resorted to pure muscle power. To
my amazement, this too failed. With a playful smile, Shih-fu offered to
have a go at opening them, and, in defeat I reluctantly handed them to
him. Within no time, and with very little effort, he had the whole pack
opened. He then looked up and beamed a smile at me while shaking his finger.
What I learned from this was that in order to open a bag of candies you
have got to go about it in the right way, and, it also helps to have opened
quite a few previously. The more bags you open, the better you get.
This was indeed a wonderful, wonderful,
wonderful retreat! Thank you everyone!
Memoirs of a Monk's
Journey To Thailand
Part One: An Introduction to Thai Buddhism.
Several years ago, I spent almost an entire
Thailand, learning the language and studying Thai Buddhism. My
companion during this time was Guo-hui Shi, another disciple of Shih-fu.
Much of the first seven months was spent learning the Thai language so
that we could communicate with the people. We had numerous teachers, some
who spoke Mandarin and some who spoke English. During this time we also
visited a few of the more famous religious and spiritual sites in Thailand,
such as the Jade Monastery of the Jade Buddha in Bangkok as well as the
more touristy locations that housed ancient Buddha statues. For the most
part, however, we immersed ourselves in the language, and after about three
months I was able to talk to others with confidence.
There are many good things about the Thai
Buddhist system, most noticeable being that it is very stable and organized.
In a sense, Thailand is a Buddhist country, which enables Buddhism to be
cohesively institutionalized. In contrast, each temple and monastery in
Taiwan functions on its own. Buddhism in Taiwan is prosperous and growing,
but there is no coherent underlying institution. Because of this fundamental
difference, it would probably be difficult to directly translate or apply
the Thai system to Taiwan. For this reason we were also supposed to visit
Sri Lanka, where the monastic institutions are more independent and similar
to those in Taiwan. But this never happened.
After the first seven months, we visited
places less well known to tourists and more conducive to practice. We traveled
the length and breadth of Thailand for about a month, visiting different
places and spending as many as ten days at a particular site. One place
that stands out in my mind as being an excellent atmosphere for traditional
Thai Buddhist practice is called the Monastery in the Forest. We spent
the longest time, however, at the Monastery of Dharmakaya Body. This monastery
had a student-exchange program with Shih-fu's temple in Taiwan. A few Thai
monks spent three years at Shih-fu's temple and, in exchange, Shih-fu sent
some of his disciples to Thailand to live, study and practice for a year.
Gou-chou Shi and Dharma Master Guo-sing Shi were the first disciples to
spend time in Thailand, and we were the second group to go.
We finally stopped traveling at the branch
of Wat Dhammakaya (Dharma Body Monastery) in the north, with the intention
of practicing for four intensive weeks with the resident monks. As the
days passed, I felt better and better, and it seemed such a pity to have
to leave at the end of our allotted time. The stay proved to be so wonderful
and valuable that we decided not to go to Sri Lanka, and instead extended
our visit at the Dharma Body Monastery to two and a half months, so that
we could continue to study and meditate.
After our stay, we went back to the main
temple headquarters of the monastery, which was close to Bangkok and the
airport, and then returned to Taiwan. In Taiwan we visited four different
monasteries in ten days, never spending more than a day and a half at any
of them. The purpose was to provide a more concise comparison between the
Taiwanese and Thai monastic systems. When we finally returned to Nung Ch'an
Temple and the Institute of Advanced Study of Buddhism -- Shih-fu's institutions
-- we formally lectured on the Thai system of Buddhism.
When I arrived in Thailand, I noticed that
the environment was quite different than that of Taiwan or the United States.
Many people refer to Thailand as the "Land of Smiles." It is indeed true.
The people are peace-loving and intelligent, friendly and curious, and
have a calmness about them that is contagious. For me, it was a validation
of what is possible when Buddhism is a fundamental and pervasive part of
a society. In the case of Thailand, Buddhism has prospered for over a thousand
It is interesting to note that Thailand
has received twenty-two honorable awards from Philippine ex-president,
five of which were awarded to abbots of monasteries who worked to promote
world peace. It is evident that the Sangha's work goes toward all kinds
of programs of social welfare. I believe it is for these, and many more,
reasons that Thailand is a place of good merit, free from war, and agriculturally
plentiful; and the people do not have to labor that hard. Moreover, with
the exception of the southern part of the country, Thailand is virtually
free of hurricanes and other violent storms.
About ninety percent of the Thai population
is Buddhist. Perhaps many are non-Buddhist, but the families say they are
Buddhist. Still, it is fair to say that most people understand basic Buddhist
concepts and are familiar with the Dharma. For example, during my stay
I participated in three funerals. I saw that people did not burst into
loud, heartbroken cries. I asked why and people typically answered, "Birth,
old-age, sickness and death are part of a natural process. One of these
days it will happen to me." I also saw the gentle smiles of people trying
to encourage and console the family of the deceased. Their acceptance of
the natural cycle of birth and death and their sincere compassion moved
me. In addition, people are given reprints of sutras at the ends of funerals,
the idea being that the merit from reprinting the sutra will be transferred
to the deceased for his or her benefit.
Thai people take the ideas of calmness,
merit and virtue very seriously, and are, for the most part, content. As
a rule, they do not speak loudly in public places, and try to make as little
noise as possible in any situation. For example, people open and close
doors as gently as possible. If a person inadvertently makes a lot of noise,
it is considered a problem. In one instance, we were studying with our
language teacher when she made a loud noise with her cup. She was quite
frightened for having committed what she considered to be a major infraction
and considered her actions seriously. People are especially sensitive and
considerate in public places. I never saw anyone yelling or talking loudly
to another person in public; and no one made another feel uncomfortable.
Of course I do not know what happens in the privacy of people's homes.
Thai people are generous and giving, especially
to the Sangha, daily visiting monasteries to make offerings of all kinds.
Householders give rice and other food to monks, who visit homes in the
morning. Some people were quite poor, yet they were still happy to make
a contribution. Both householders and monks say it makes them feel good
for the rest of the day. I did not have the opportunity to go out everyday
to ask for food, but when I did, it left me with a good feeling as well.
When monks ask for food they wear their
traditional robes, which are called "clothing of the field of good merit."
When people make an offering to a member of the Sangha, they believe they
are planting and cultivating in the field of good merit. It is a good practice
for lay people, because they have contact with the Sangha every day, and
it is good for monks, because they are the recipients of householders'
offerings. It means they have enough food to survive for the day and can
dedicate themselves to their practice. They also transfer the merit of
their practice to the householders.
Another notable feature of the Thai system
is the elaborate social order, for householders as well as the Sangha.
Among the common people, social order is comparable to the Chinese tradition
in that a specific title is given to each member of a family. In Western
traditions with which I am familiar, there is no such differentiation.
For example, terms like "brother" and "sister" apply regardless of the
sibling's age with reference to one's own age. In Chinese there are different
words for older and younger brothers and sisters. It is also this way in
Thailand. When people meet you, they ask how old you are, what you do for
a living, if you are married or single, and so on, so that in the event
that they invite you to a social function, they know where to seat you.
There are a few differences between Thai
Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism. For one, the robes are different. Second,
most Thai monks follow the precept of not eating any food after lunch,
which occurs around noontime. On the other hand, unlike the Chinese Buddhist
Sangha, Thai monks are not vegetarians. Chinese Buddhists extend the bodhisattva
precept of compassion for all living things to include not eating meat.
The Thai people do not see the precept as including vegetarianism. Still,
it does not mean they are not compassionate, and, in fact, there are ten
different kinds of meat they do not eat. This does not extend to the food
that is offered to them by householders, for to refuse an offering of food
is not considered compassionate or good practice. In the afternoons and
evenings, they do not eat solid food, with the exception of certain fruits,
sugars and liquids, which are considered medicine.
Thai Buddhists are known for two characteristics:
holding the precepts and meditation practice. The Thai Tripitaka consists
of forty-five volumes, much of which teaches precepts and methods of practice.
Supposedly, one can read through all the particulars of the Thai system
in three months. In comparison, the Chinese Tripitaka contains many more
volumes and takes about three years to read. The Thai system has fewer
sutras, fewer precepts, and places more emphasis on meditation.
In the Sangha, people are classified according
to how many precepts they hold and how long they have upheld them. Bhiksus
(fully ordained monks) hold the greatest number of precepts and are placed
in the highest position of respect. Srameneras, or novice monks, hold only
ten precepts, and are second to bhiksus. There are no nuns in Thailand,
because when Buddhism first arrived in Thailand there were still no nuns,
or bhiksunis, in the Buddhist system. When nuns from Taiwan first arrived
in Thailand, the people did not know how to receive them. Were they to
seat the nuns before or after the novice monks? They were not sure what
Although there are no fully ordained nuns
in Thailand, there are many "official" female practitioners, or what can
be translated as "women who receive eight precepts." These women shave
their heads and wear white robes, which, as in the Chinese tradition, are
associated with householders. Still, they are considered lay people and
are not part of the formal Sangha.
Here are a few examples of the way people
live with the Buddhist precepts. Householders prostrate to monks. Even
the king of Thailand prostrates to all monks, regardless of the monk's
status or amount of time spent as a Sangha member. And monks do not join
palms in response, a practice that differs from the Chinese system. The
belief in Thai Buddhism is that householders cultivate much merit through
their actions, but if a monk shows reciprocation of respect by joining
his palms when the lay person is prostrating to him, the monk's response
lessens the merits the prostrator accumulates. So, for the benefit of householders,
monks do not join hands when householders prostrate to them. Between monks
this does not apply and they do join palms. Occasionally, monks give Dharma
talks to the public. If, in the audience, there is another monk who holds
seniority, the junior monk will prostrate to the elder as well as to the
statue of the Buddha before he starts to speak. Likewise, at the end of
the talk, he will prostrate to the elder.
Thai monks will not join palms or prostrate
to a picture or statue of a bodhisattva, not even to a picture or statue
of Sakyamuni Buddha before he attained Buddhahood. They only prostrate
or join palms to pictures and statues of Sakyamuni Buddha after his enlightenment.
There are statues of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara in temples, because many
people are of Chinese heritage, but Thai monks will not join palms or prostrate
to such a statue. The reason is that bodhisattvas do not appear in the
form of bhiksus, but as householders, so Thai monks, in upholding their
high regard for precepts, will not pay respect to such statues.
In each of the monasteries there is a Buddha
Hall with a statue of Sakyamuni Buddha on a platform. No one other than
a monk is allowed to step up on this platform. Also, in a Thai temple or
monastery, people are not allowed to stretch out their legs in the direction
of the Buddha statue. Feet are considered unclean, so they cannot be extended
toward the Buddha. In hot weather, women wear short skirts, but they cannot
enter a temple dressed in such a manner. There are longer skirts available
at the temple so that women may enter to pay respects and make offerings.
All of these rules are engraved in people's minds. This kind of socialization
creates a deep sense of tradition.
Thai monks strictly adhere to the precepts.
For example, the Monastery of Dharma Body was founded by a woman householder
who had received the eight precepts. As a practitioner, she had deep attainment
and was highly respected in the Thai Buddhist tradition. She even had a
couple of disciples who eventually became assistant abbots. In keeping
with tradition, however, she would prostrate to her former disciples because
they were bhiksus and she was a householder. Another story involves the
princess of Thailand. The ritual goes that whenever one receives an award
from the princess, that person has to kneel down. But when the princess
gave an award to a woman who held eight precepts, that woman did not have
to kneel down because the level of holding precepts is higher than that
of the princess.
Srameneras (novice monks) serve full monks.
They cut grass in the morning and do other chores. When monks go out in
the morning to ask for food, novice monks carry the bowls of the bhiksus,
which are sizable, along with their own for the lengthy walk from the temple
to the houses. After the bowls are filled, the novice monks carry both
full bowls back to the temple. This happened to me. One morning I went
with my bowl for food. It was heavy once it was filled. A novice monk,
who happened to be a Westerner, asked if he could carry my bowl. In return,
the bhiksus have the responsibility of teaching novice monks methods and
theory of practice.
Outside the Dharma Hall there is a place
where morning and evening services are performed. Before he goes up to
the service, a monk has to wash his feet. Typically, a novice monk will
be there to dry and wipe the monk's feet. The first day I went there with
a different robe. Because of this the novice monk was not sure of my rank,
so I went inside. People asked me how many precepts I had taken and how
long ago I had taken them. After that, the novice monk wiped my feet as
he did everyone else's. This is the kind of training people receive from
the very beginning to cultivate respect for elders and the Sangha.
This respect also extends to the Buddhist
temples and monasteries themselves. When a Buddha Hall is built, it can
be used for no other purpose as long as it stands in Thailand. The boundaries
are demarcated and the hall is built. Even if the whole place is deserted
and nobody takes care of the Buddha Hall for centuries, it cannot be used
for anything else. Sometimes criminals who are on the run manage to find
refuge in a deserted Buddha Hall. As long as they are inside, the police
cannot enter and arrest them.
I am speaking so much about the precepts
and behavior because I want to point out that this kind of ordered system
provides stability for Thai society. In general, elders, whether they be
in the Sangha, lay Buddhists, or in society as a whole, use these rules
to teach the younger generations about spirituality and ethics. People
of the younger generations also learn their responsibility to respect and
take care of their elders. My experience was that the Thai Sangha had a
wonderful relationship to the general society.
[to be continued]
Transparency is working
Even when we're thick.
This is like sunlight
Filtering through a lead room
As if it were glass.
Then only the lead
Believes in its heaviness
While the worlds rejoice.
It lives the perfect
Principle of nothingness
In which it rests,
Creating its dreams
Of lead in a river of
No wonder the sun
Shines anyway. The grass is green.
It has always been
Same. That day we are awake
To our beginning.
Lin-chi Ch'an and the
Use of Kung-an and Hua-t'ou
This article is excerpted from a forthcoming
book entitled Hoofprint of the Ox. It is based on several lectures by Master
Sheng-yen, translated, compiled, arranged and edited into its present form
by Professor Dan Stevenson.
In the Recorded Sayings of Lin-chi -- a
text alleged to contain the teachings of Lin-chi I-hs'an (d. 866), the
Ch'an master from whom the Lin-chi (Japanese, Rinzai) line takes its name
-- we find a number of formulae that describe basic stratagems used by
Lin-chi and other masters of his lineage in the training of disciples.
They include such things as the four criteria for differentiating students,
the three essentials, the four relations of guest and host, the four classifications
[of function], the four shouts (Chinese, ho; Japanese, katsu), and the
eight types of beating with the meditation staff or "incense board" (Chinese,
hsiang-pan; Japanese, keisaku). Since the text of the Recorded Sayings
of Lin-chi was probably not circulated as a completed work until the tenth
century, there is the possibility that these represent glosses of Lin-chi's
teaching style developed by later teachers. Nevertheless, they are certainly
rooted in his line and, thus, are illustrative of the distinctive style
of training that became associated with the Lin-chi school during the period
when the five houses of Ch'an began to take on definitive shape.
Lin-ch'i's Ch'an is described in Ch'an
literature as a style that employed a good deal of "shouting and beating."
As a whole, the school is renowned for employing a highly pressured approach
to Ch'an practice centered around intense combative encounters between
master and disciple. This fierce, almost martial, quality is readily discernible
in the person of Lin-chi himself, as commemorated in the Recorded Sayings.
But similar behavior can be traced back through his immediate predecessors
to the iconoclastic school of Ma-tsu Tao-i. For instance, on the three
occasions that Lin-chi dared approach his own master, Huang-po, to ask
about the Way, Huang-po simply beat him with the meditation stick. Ch'an
lore presents Ma-tsu himself as a volatile figure who twisted noses, beat
and kicked people regularly. Many people are intimidated and puzzled by
this seemingly violent behavior, especially in so far as it claims to be
connected with spirituality. But there is a design to it that is quite
consistent with the aims of the "sudden path" of Ch'an.
In his discourses, Lin-chi often used aphorisms
that echo the theme of non-striving or just letting go: "Just be an ordinary
person with nothing to do," he tells us. "Be a person of no rank, no consequence."
This teaching, in turn, is coupled with another idea -- that of "slaying"
or "killing" anything that might cause us to set up deluded expectations
or become dependent on things outside of ourselves. "Followers of the Way,
if you want insight into the Dharma as it really is," Lin-chi says, "just
don't be taken in by the deluded views of others. Whatever you encounter,
whether within or without, slay it at once. If you meet the Buddha, slay
the Buddha. If you meet a patriarch, slay the patriarch. If you meet an
arhat, kill the arhat. If you meet your parents, slay your parents. If
you meet your family, kill your family. You will then attain liberation."
Obviously Lin-chi is not advocating here
that one should actually kill Buddhas, parents and teachers. But what is
the point of such a seemingly violent attitude? Can this really be considered
a method of practice conducive to Buddhist enlightenment and compassion?
Indeed it can. Lin-ch'i's point is that the student must "slay" these things
as objects of attachment or self- expectation. He or she must be relentlessly
self-reliant (tzu-hsin) and cut off all conditional thoughts in the mind
until there is nothing further to slay. When all such discriminations --
all such naive views that shape the small self and its world -- are exhausted,
one will truly be "ordinary, with nothing to do." In one of his discourses
Lin-chi explains, "A man of old has said, 'If you meet a person on the
road who has penetrated the Way, above all do not try to seek the Way.'
Therefore it is said, 'When someone tries to practice the Way, one will
not succeed, and, furthermore, the ten thousand evil states will vie in
raising their heads.' If one can use the sword of wisdom [to cut down all
seeking], nothing will remain. Before brightness manifests the darkness
will already be bright. Hence, an ancient [probably Ma-tzu] has said, 'the
ordinary mind is the Way.'"
Thus, Lin-chi's two-fold approach of "being
an ordinary person with no-thing to do" and "slaying" all conditional dependence
constitutes a single unified method. Even so, this method is not easy to
put into practice. Because we as people are so complex, it is extremely
difficult to slay our attachments and self-centered thoughts, much less
completely let go. Most of us don't even have a clue what this means. What
is more, when we attempt to translate it into action, our emotional imbalances
may give rise to all sorts of misunderstandings and abuses. To forestall
these problems, Lin-chi also stressed the necessity of close interaction
between master and disciple.
The intense and highly charged confrontations
between master and student, and the shouting and beating that often typify
these exchanges, are not used out of some perverse love for punishment
or pain. The master does not administer them to torture, brainwash, or
break the student; nor does the student use them to rebel or work out some
hidden resentment against authority. They are simply intended to help those
with incorrect focus or insufficient energy to find the proper integrity
and determination necessary to practice effectively. The master helps the
student tune the mind and spirit, but the student is the one who ultimately
brings the training to its conclusion. In a sense it is like a chick hatching
from an egg. While the chick struggles and presses from the inside, the
mother hen pecks on the shell from the outside. By doing so at the appropriate
time and in the appropriate way, the hen helps the chick hatch that much
In fact, it is this sort of stratagem on
the part of the master that is the subject of the scheme of Lin-chi's four
classifications [of function]: Depending on the condition of the student,
the master will sometimes use words and actions that "snatch away the person;"
sometimes he will "snatch away the object or environment;" sometimes he
will snatch away both at once; and sometimes he will not snatch away either.
Lin-chi explains the function of this approach as follows:
Among all the students from the four quarters
who are followers of the Way, none have come before me without depending
on something. Here I hit them right from the start. If they come forth
using their hands, I hit them on the hands. If they come forth using their
mouths, I hit them on the mouth. If they come forth using their eyes, I
hit them on the eyes. Not one has yet come before me in solitary freedom.
All are clambering after the worthless contrivances of the men of old.
As for myself, I haven't a single Dharma to give people. All I can do is
to cure illnesses and loosen bonds. You followers of the Way, try coming
before me without being dependent on things. I would confer with you.
To this end Lin-chi made great use of intense,
provocative methods such as shouting and beating. Often these confrontations
between master and disciple centered around questions or anecdotes drawn
from past Ch'an masters. However, they could just as well be initiated
by something a master would say or do on the spur of the moment. In either
case, students were provoked into intense concentration and struggle with
specific issues which either spontaneously arose in their minds, or which
were given to them as questions by their masters.
Some masters used to refrain from answering
any queries that the student had about these episodes. Instead they might
beat or verbally abuse the person without any explanation. Should the student
then question the master about this violent response, he or she might be
met with another blow. At times this kind of treatment could continue until
the student ceased questioning and retreated from the "field of battle."
Yet, even though one might withdraw from the master's presence, one would
certainly remain unsettled. Should the student eventually return to question
or, perhaps, respond to the master, he or she might once again be beaten,
thereby leaving him even more deeply puzzled.
At this juncture one's whole being might
be directed towards understanding the reason for this treatment, to the
point where one's consternation about the master's actions even supersede
the original question. This sort of thing could well on for years, ultimately
leaving the student in utter confusion, with absolutely nothing sure to
hold on to. Should the student then decide to leave the monastery and try
another master, he may find himself confronted with further beatings and
no answers. However, after years of having the rug constantly yanked out
from underneath one like this, in the end one may truly become an ordinary
person with nothing to do. In fact, this was precisely Lin-chi's own experience.
After being beaten repeatedly by Huang-po, he left Huang-po's monastery
in despair and went to the Ch'an master Ta-y. After listening
patiently to his lengthy story of trial and tribulation, Ta-y
scolded him saying, "Huang-po is such a kind old granny, utterly wearing
himself out on your behalf. Now you come here and ask whether you have
done something wrong or not!" With these words Lin-chi realized great enlightenment,
after which he was able to return to Huang-po and "pull the tiger's whiskers."
By G. C.
Life. Back in the relationships with family,
friends, neighbors, animals.
Even though this retreat was the only one
till now, in which it seemed, through all its duration, that it was just
a continuation of everyday life, and I still had thoughts about things
that happen to me nowadays, even in the last day of the retreat, coming
back, I feel I have been changed deeply. Somehow I accept life's flow of
events, and let myself be with it, without resisting or chasing. Just watching
and responding to what comes. Not in a complete way. I mean: not without
any resistance or chasing, but somewhat less than before.
The most important thing I learned this
time, and I learned it with my body, thanks to Shih-fu, is to let the body
do the work. Let the body respond, let the body know, let it work on the
method. I only have to watch, watch, watch.
For a while I have known that problems
or arguments with myself, in which I try to figure out what will be the
right thing to do about a situation, cannot really be solved in this inner
conflict. They can be watched, using the method. Yet I see it clearer now.
Things should be left in the body to do their work, and be watched ceaselessly,
patiently, lovingly, curiously, questioningly, to reveal by themselves
their own truth. It's like some current that forms, that you have to step
aside from and get the picture. It's not even a picture. It is just this:
some movement of energy. Why? What for? Who cares. Here comes another one.
Oh, and more. Detaching from the problem and the solution -- something
comes of itself. And the conflict is no more there.
I confronted my pride and, still, my insecurity,
and a strong strong urge to be free of my body. It was an emotional retreat,
in which the chi (energy) behaved as if it were a bear in a cage, trying
to break out, and after trying to regulate it, which I somewhat could,
but it was very uncomfortable, I just watched as it did whatever it wanted.
"It" means, I think, the poor self that put up a fight for its fake life.
What a power! Or maybe I don't know what it was.
As this happened, sticking to watching
and questioning, I had a few experiences, beautiful and surprising. One,
right in the first morning, I was very peaceful, and had my question floating,
very thin, in an empty space that filled me with awe.
The second, the next morning, for a whole
period I pierced with my inner glance, as if through a vague window frame,
some kind of powerful, vivid emptiness again, after which, through a few
sessions of whatever I did; sitting, walking, exercising, every action
and sensation I did or had, came, very clearly from that space, and was,
alone for itself, only what it was. Amazingly so.
Another morning, When the fight with the
stormy chi started, I watched my body ask his question. My gaze was fixed
very strongly on the body (on the chi? body? mind? whatever it was), doing
this crazy questioning, and suddenly something was lit. Not the usual soft
light that comes with concentration on one thought, but strong, harsh,
relentless, clear. As if I were looked at from within, with an unflinching
powerful, exposing-everything gaze, that its light cannot be escaped. This
was a strong experience and I lived under its impression for some hours
later, and I think, until now too.
After these, there was only this amazing
chi and its wonders. I think he wants to go free.
Song of Mind of Niu-t'ou
One of a series of lectures given during
retreat at the Ch'an Center, Elmhurst, Queens, New York.
The Song of Mind continues:
As to gain and loss,
Why call either good or bad?
Everything that is active
Originally was uncreated.
What is this "gain and loss" the song speaks
of? Does one gain vexations and lose wisdom? Does one gain wisdom and lose
vexations? I'm sure everyone here would prefer the latter. Actually, however,
both possibilities are perspectives of ordinary sentient beings.
Practitioners often refer to the phrase,
"Everyone is originally the same as the Buddha," and ask, "When did we
lose wisdom and gain vexations to become the ordinary sentient beings we
are now?" In fact, wisdom and vexation are always together and cannot be
separated. When you gain wisdom, you gain vexation. When you gain vexation,
you gain wisdom. Confusing? Let me add that if you let go of wisdom, you
also let go of vexation, and if you let go of vexation, you let go of wisdom.
Wisdom itself is vexation. The wisdom of
bodhisattvas is vexation as far as ordinary sentient beings are concerned.
Sentient beings cannot see it any other way. The vexations of ordinary
sentient beings are not perceived as different from wisdom by bodhisattvas.
From the Buddha's point of view, there is neither wisdom nor vexation.
Because you are not the Buddha, you cannot understand this. Because you
are not a bodhisattva, you cannot even fathom wisdom. All you know is vexation.
Whenever you differentiate between one
thing and another, such as gain and loss, it leads to separation, extremes,
polarities, comparisons, judgment. This is what ordinary sentient beings
do. As long as we are unenlightened, it is all we can do. For us there
is still gain and loss, wisdom and vexation.
Many of you have come to retreat with hopes
or expectations of gaining something. I'm sure some of you have had conversations
with yourself: "I wonder what I'll get out of this retreat? I'm willing
to practice hard, to pay a high price, as long as there is some pay-off,
something of value that I can bring home with me." I recommend you adopt
a different perspective. From my point of view, your retreat can be considered
successful if you leave here with less than what you arrived with. It would
be sad if you arrived with one load of baggage and left with two. What
a heavy burden! In that case I would say the Ch'an retreat was not worth
your time and effort. On Ch'an retreats, the more you lose the better.
In a best-case scenario, you may let go
of so much that there will be nothing left to lose. At that time, have
you gained anything? If everything is lost, is anything gained? If you
manage to let go even of your own self, is there anything that still belongs
to you? I ask loaded questions. I hope none of you is adding this to your
baggage. When we refer to the "self" or to the "I," what we mean is attachment
to the self. When self-attachment is gone, there is no longer gain or loss.
You may ask, "So which is better, gain or loss?" For those who have experienced
ultimate enlightenment, such talk is meaningless.
Yesterday, one retreatant came to tears
when he caught a glimpse of the enormity of his self-attachment. Afterwards
I asked if he still had attachment. He replied, "Yes, but perhaps a bit
I said to him, "Well at least you have
lost something. Hopefully by retreat's end you will lose even more. Maybe
you will lose so much your fiancee won't recognize you when you return
home." It may sound comical, but it is a concern for some practitioners.
On a previous retreat, one participant voiced such concern: "If I go on
letting go of things, at one point I might lose everything. Who would I
be then? What would I be then?" It is no laughing matter. You may find
yourself in such a situation some day. Your self-attachment will not allow
you to let go without a fight. Whenever you are on the verge of losing
something, or have already lost something, there is a natural tendency
for fear to arise. And with this fear comes another natural tendency, to
try to grab on to something, to hold fast to something, or to even create
something new to attach to. This is vexation. It is a natural response
of ordinary sentient beings. As practitioners, be aware of this, and know
that with continual practice, these fears, expectations and desires will
"Everything that is active originally was
uncreated." By "active" we mean any and all phenomena (dharmas), actions,
or manifestations. More perplexing lines from the Song of Mind, words that
seems to contradict common sense. Does it mean that results can spring
from nowhere? Can I become a doctor or professor without studying and working
for it? That would be ludicrous. It would seem natural to suppose that
phenomena arise from something else, from some kind of matter or effort.
This building, for instance, was created from raw materials and work. It
didn't arise from nothing. We cannot say that this building is uncreated.
Obviously, the song is alluding to something else.
Every evening we recite from the liturgy:
"To know all the Buddhas of the past, present and future, perceive that
dharmadhatu nature (dharma realms) is all created by the mind." This is
the perspective of ordinary sentient beings. We say that within the dharma
realms everything is created by the mind; that phenomena come into being
from the individual karma and collective karma of sentient beings. All
things are but the fruition or manifestation of these karmic forces. Song
of Mind, in saying that all phenomena are originally uncreated, takes the
viewpoint of the enlightened. For the enlightened, there are no distinctions
to be made. Phenomena still exist, but they are not categorized, rated,
judged, or given meaning. It is we who make distinctions between man and
woman, fire and water, moral and immoral. These concepts carry different
meanings for each of us; but to the enlightened, who do not make self-centered
distinctions, these things are without meaning. They just are.
It would not even be correct to say that
enlightened beings see all dharmas as the one dharma. For the enlightened,
there are no dharmas to speak of. If there were, that would not be the
ultimate state. And if there are no dharmas, how can there be creation?
It is here, however, where confusion arises. People then falsely believe
that in the enlightened state there is only emptiness and nothingness.
Untrue. Worldly phenomena still exist for the enlightened, but the enlightened
have no attachments and make no distinctions. Hence, this condition is
called "no dharma." One does not reject the existence of phenomena. The
phenomena we create -- phenomena with constructions, or attachment -- still
Buddhadharma does not negate the world
and phenomena, nor does it teach people to escape from the world. It teaches
people to liberate themselves by affirming the world and at the same time
not attaching to it. The completely enlightened can still exist and fully
function in the world. They can and do interact with other sentient beings.
And except in rare instances, enlightened beings as well as Ch'an patriarchs
do not upset the normal order of things.
I read about a preacher from another spiritual
tradition in Taiwan. In response to the current theory regarding the evolution
of humans, the man took a monkey to a public area and said, "If it is true
that human beings do not come from God, but from monkeys, then this monkey
is a descendant of your ancestors and you should respect it as such. But
if evolution is true, then how come this monkey is still the same, and
we have evolved into a higher order of living beings?" He also heard that
the Buddha speaks of all sentient beings as having Buddha-nature. So he
collected cats and dogs and insects and preached to the public, "You Buddhists
don't have to prostrate to Buddhas and Buddha statues. If all sentient
beings are the same, you can prostrate to these animals here." This person
has misunderstood Buddhadharma. Ch'an patriarchs and masters, even after
enlightenment experiences, still respected the icons and sutras of Buddhism.
At the same time, they were aware of and understood that Buddhist statues
are not Buddhas and that the sutras are not really the Dharma.
Still, stories persist about the strange
antics of Ch'an masters. There is a story about a famous master who was
spotted urinating in front of a Buddha statue. Monks saw him and tried
to drag him away, saying, "How can you, as a master, act so ignorantly
and disrespectfully?" He asked them what he was doing that was wrong and
they said, "This is a Buddha statue, a place of the Buddhas."
He answered, "Tell me of a place where
there is no Buddha and I will piss there."
This is one of those classic Ch'an stories
that demonstrates the master's efforts to break apart the strong attachments
of practitioners and disciples. This was a once-in-a lifetime occurrence.
The master chose an opportune moment to make a point. If, on the other
hand, he urinated in front of statues on a regular basis, he would more
likely be considered an eccentric rather than a master and this story would
not even exist today. Enlightened masters will, most of the time, act like
ordinary human beings. They will not tamper with the order of things, or
human relationships, or commonly accepted principles of actions.
As practitioners, you should not be looking
to become something different, something that stands out. Imagining what
an enlightened person would be like and then acting upon those imaginings
is accumulating more baggage, and frivolous baggage at that. Learn from
the words spoken here from the Song of Mind. Adopt its teachings of gain
and loss. You can only truly practice when there are no thoughts of gain
or loss. If such thoughts are in your mind, all you will gain is vexation.
Trying to gain something from this retreat so that people back home will
notice is an incorrect attitude and a waste of time. Remembering the retreat
experiences related to you by someone else and trying to outdo him or her
is also a waste of time. Don't compare yourselves to others. Comparisons
lead to feelings of superiority or inferiority, envy or arrogance. Don't
even compare your present situation with your past experiences. All of
this is just more vexation, and it is not conducive to good practice. When
the situation does not seem good, don't think that you have failed. When
the situation seems to be very good, don't think that you have already
succeeded. Why am I also advising you not to harbor so-called positive,
motivating thoughts? Because it cultivates a mind of gain and loss. Of
course we should all think positive thoughts as much as possible, but here
on retreat do not cling even to this attitude. When you practice, do your
best in each moment, but do not cling to those moments. This is not an
attitude of not caring about what you do, for that also would be poor practice.
The best attitude is being in the moment and staying on the method.