Ch'an Newsletter - No. 22, June 1982


One time when I was in the mountains practicing I walked down the steps from the hut where I was living and my mind was suddenly filled with doubt: Who was it that just walked down the steps? It was me. But who is the person who is standing here now? It is also me. Then, is the me who just walked downstairs a moment ago the same as the me who is down here now, or am I two different people? I became so wrapped up in the question that I didn't eat that day. This is an example of a situation where the doubt sensation arises spontaneously; there is a lot of power to that "natural" doubt. But since most people on retreat cannot come up with the doubt sensation spontaneously, we give them a method, such as "Who am I?" to help them bring it out. Of course, if you are not practicing hard at the time, this sort of question would have no meaning. Once on retreat in Taiwan I asked a student, "What is your name?" He replied, "Ch'en --." I said, "That's wrong. Ch'en -- is over there!" and I pointed to the name card pasted on the wall above his cushion. He said, "What am I doing over there?" At the time he couldn't figure out who he was. For over twenty years he had considered his name to be himself. But now he realized his name had nothing to do with him. So who was he? From that time on, the doubt sensation arose in his mind. It's like being in a pitch-black room or inside an iron ball. You cannot see anything clearly at all but you know there must be some brightness outside and you really want to know what it is.

A long time ago there was a baby who was born in prison. His father was related to the emperor of the previous dynasty, and when the dynasties changed over, they locked up all the family members of the old dynasty to prevent them from revolting against the new dynasty. So this prince was doomed to spend his whole life behind bars and he didn't know of anything different. He thought that life was just like this and he never suspected there was anything outside. One day an old man got sentenced to life imprisonment and was thrown in the same jail. He said to the young prince, "Since I was sentenced to life, I'm thinking of escaping. Why don't you come along? There are two ways to do it. We can either try to get out ourselves, or we can wait for someone to save us." The boy said, "Don't be crazy. Here we have plenty of food, and clothes to wear. It's really pretty good. You're so old already, why do you want to go out there for?" The old man answered, "You don't understand, son. To lose your freedom is a very painful thing." "What's freedom?" "Outside of this prison is freedom." "Do you mean to say I'm not free now?"

Every day, this old man constantly thought about getting out. One day, after he finished eating, he broke his bowl and used the chips to start digging a hole. The prince stood there laughing his head off. "What are you doing that for? You're so old now, by the time you dig your way out, you'll be dead already. And besides, if the guards find out, they'll give you a terrible punishment. So what's the point? It's so comfortable here." In fact, the boy even talked to the guards, saying, "This man is crazy here." After he told the guards, they beat up the old man and locked him up for a few days without any food. The prince was a little disturbed by that and he felt sorry for him. But as soon as he got out, the old man started digging again. The prince thought, "This guy must be obsessed." He asked him, "What is it out there that tempts you so much" The old man said, "You just don't know. Out there is freedom and in here is just a place to punish criminals. I'd rather live outside for one hour than live here in this jail." When he heard that, the boy was strangely moved. He thought, "Gee, maybe there is something to what the old man says. It must be better out there, otherwise he would not be willing to keep on digging this hole after all the beating and starvation." So he started helping him out.

But the boy was only a child after all. After digging for a while, he gave up and threw aside the chip. He said, "This is not fun anymore. What's so good out there anyway?" So the prince just watched the old man digging and digging. This went on for over a year. The old man was constantly working at it. The kid would sometimes help him out, then he would give up and rest. Then the old man would speak some words of encouragement and he would get moved and pick up the tile again. Eventually, the old man finally got through the hole. And he took the little prince with him. When he got outside, the boy exclaimed, "Hey! The world is so big! How come you didn't tell me about this sooner?" The old man said, "I've been telling you all along how great it is out here. But you wouldn't believe me." "Yes, but the way you described it is nothing like what I see now!"

The old man represents a person who has already had glimpse of his nature. He knows how good it is on the other side. So he is willing to constantly practice very hard, with unceasing effort. The prince is just like the ordinary people. Sometimes they kind of believe it, sometimes they don't believe it. Sometimes they are moved to practice, but they just don't have the power to keep on working hard. Similarly, before you are able to give rise to a strong doubt sensation, you must first have attained some response or experience from the practice. Otherwise, even if you use a method such as a "hua-t'ou", it would not bring up the doubt. It would only be the same as reciting a mantra over and over again. At most it would bring you to a state of samadhi, or deep concentration. But if you wish to use the hua-t'ou in order to get enlightened, then you must first have a strong foundation in your meditation practice.

Evening Talk During Retreat
by Master Sheng-yen
June 2, 1982


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