Winter 1997


The Heart Sutra  Commentary by Master Sheng-yen
Retreat Report  by P.M.
Memoirs of a Monk's Journey to Thailand  by Guo-yuan Fa Shi
Good News  By Paul Weiss
Lin-chi Ch'an and the Use of Kung-an and Hua-t'ou  Professor Dan Stevenson
Retreat Report  by G.C.
Song of Mind of Niu-t'ou Fa-jung  Commentary by Master Sheng-yen

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 liberated.

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 lessened.

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, clearer outlook.

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.


Retreat Report

By P.M.

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 the future.

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 doubt.

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 year in 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 years.

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 to do.

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]


Good News

    Disregarding dreams,
    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
    Shining emptiness.

    No wonder the sun
    Shines anyway. The grass is green.
    It has always been

    Transparently the
    Same. That day we are awake
    To our beginning.

                    Paul Weiss

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 easier.

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."


Retreat Report

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 Fa-jung

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 less."

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 lessen.

"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 exist.

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.


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Dharma Drum Mountain