Ch'an Newsletter - No. 25, November 1982

Tuning the Harp

There are several ways that people may "ts'an ch'an" or "practice ch'an." One common method is to "ts'an the peaceful ch'an," which means to practice in a very leisurely manner. Those who practice in this way seem to be very consistent practitioners, they practice all day, every day. But actually their practice is faulty. These people will practice for a while and then think, "Oh! It's about lunchtime." So they will stop for lunch. After lunch they will rest for a while and then resume practicing. Suddenly, it will occur to them, "It's about time to do my laundry." After the laundry they're a bit fatigued so they take a break. Soon it's time for dinner. After dinner, their stomach is a bit full so they have to wait a while before continuing to practice. They will practice for a time and, then, before you know it, it's time for bed. The next day this person will continue practicing like this. They will continue doing this for 8 or 10 years and people will regard them as a great seasoned practitioner. They seem very stable and free of vexations.

But, actually, these kind of people may practice for many years and still be the same as they were when they began. They seem stable and free of vexations because they have very little to do, participate in no serious work, and avoid involvements or contacts.

Shih-fu once met such a person who told him, "While I was practicing I attained great freedom, great liberation." Shih-fu then asked, "At that time you never had worries about food or clothing, never had to deal with quarrelsome people, right?" This person answered, "Of course, I was practicing. People gave offerings of food and clothing and nobody ever came to quarrel with me." Shih-fu then asked, "And now?" He told Shih-fu he now had many vexations because the environment was different. Shih-fu said to him, "If you attained great liberation then, why are you not liberated now?"

Actually, people like this will never become liberated, never become enlightened, never be a Ch'an Master. They are just wasting their time, wasting their lives, wasting food.

There is yet another type of so-called practitioner. They will work very hard for one or two days as if their life depended upon it. But after a couple of days they get very tired, have a headache, their legs and back are sore and their whole body is hurting so that they can't even sit up. At this time they will say, "Maybe enlightenment isn't so easy, I'd better take a good rest. After my strength is built up I'll come back and practice." After their body has recovered and they feel well rested they will come back, in the same manner.

However, there is really no difference between this type of practitioner and the first type. Their practice is useless. Again, these kind of people are often admired as great practitioners who throw their whole lives into the practice, but actually this kind of practice is of no use.

There is a third kind of person who well remembers Buddha's words - that practice should be like the tuning of a harp. Just as the strings of a harp should not be too loose or too tight, so one's practice should not be too tense or too relaxed. Some people take this to mean that one should practice very hard until tired, rest for a while, and then continue practicing. They believe they are practicing proper moderation. However, this is still useless. It's like climbing a rope. You climb very energetically for a while. But then you feel tired and take a rest, allowing yourself to slide back to where you started. You can't get anywhere this way.

This third type of person needs the guidance of a good Master to tell them when to practice energetically, and when to take a rest, without sliding backwards. For example, a person meditating who hears the sound of the bell may think, "Ah! Time is up. I should be tired now so I think I'll stretch my legs." It's at these moments when a person needs a good Master to come around, grab an incense board, and use very strong, fierce or even evil methods to scold the person, in order to let him feel that he is a capable and useful person but due to laziness he is now in a very useless state. It's usually the case that people tend to very easily forgive themselves, but with the prompting of a Master a person may be able to develop a so-called "angry determination" in which there is a deep disgust for one's present state and a strong determination to practice diligently.

It is very important to distinguish whether a practitioner has entered into a so-called "condition" in which the great doubt sensation has been generated. Before generating the great doubt the Master may allow an exhausted practitioner to take a rest, the length of which depends upon the degree of exhaustion. However, after entering into this "condition" the Master will be like someone driving a herd of wild animals and there can be no stopping. When a person has generated the great doubt there is no harm that can come to his body, unless he originally suffered from high blood pressure or a serious heart condition, no matter how strenuously he works. This is because at this stage a person is in complete harmony with the universe. The power of the entire universe is available to the individual. So at this point the Master must push the practitioner to keep going and going and going in the hope that a world-shattering explosion will take place. Or, if not, perhaps a smaller explosion.

Of course, for those with the sharpest karmic roots, like the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-Neng, none of this is necessary. He will not need a Master. But most people need the guidance of a good Master in their practice. With the help of a good Master a person can plug along and in the end attain some good results.

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