No-Thought, No-Form and No-Abiding
Talk presented by Venerable Chang Wen
Report written by Lydia Sung 05/23/2010
On Sunday, May 23, 2010, Venerable Chang Wen gave a talk at CMC on the topic of, "No-Thought, No- Form and No-Abiding." These teachings are from the Sixth Patriarch of the Chan school, Master Hui-neng's "Platform Sutra," one of the most influential teachings in the Chan school. These concepts are found in the teachings of many of the Chan masters of the following generations. In this investigation of the three terms, Venerable described the conceptual framework, some background of where they came from, and a practical explanation on how to use them in Chan practice and while interacting with others in daily life. His talk is based on two of Shifu's books in Chinese, Master Sheng-yen Teaches the Chan Practice of Huatou and The Realization of Chan Master Shen-hui as well as a set of lectures given in Moscow during intensive retreat.
Venerable helped the audience examine "No Thought, No Form and No Abiding" within the context of the three no's by explaining the meaning of "wu" which in Chinese means "No." This word can also be translated as "nothing" and "without." "Nothing" or "lack of something" is an ordinary understanding of this character is relative to something, or to existence. In Buddhism, however, "wu" means "emptiness." In huatou or kong-an practice, one of the kong-ans that a practitioner may take up is "What is the wu?" Here, "wu" does not mean nothing, but rather, is pointing at emptiness. Emptiness means that everything exist, but this existence is not fixed, static or of individual existence. It means impermanence, change, and interdependence or interaction with all things. So, in the context of "no thought, no form and no abiding," "no" does not refer to the absence of thought, absence of form, or absence of abiding.
"No-Thought". The Chinese character for "thought" is "nian" and is comprised of the characters "now" and "mind". Here, even the word "thought" is problematic because of its many nuances. The Platform Sutra is written in a way that is poetic and there are many plays on words. One character may have many meanings or representations and is very deep. Often times, Chan masters would present their teachings through poetry in a language that seems contradictory. They used dialectic approaches, where they would make one statement and the next statement seemed to negate the previous statement. These were not merely a play on words but a way to teach so that we would not be fixed on them. Venerable advised the audience to try to avoid understanding the terms merely intellectually or conceptually. These concepts also show us a principle, which is that we can't solve the problem of our suffering or realize the enlightenment that the Chan teachers talk about by figuring it out or thinking through it.
"Thought" has a few connotations. The first can mean thinking in words, through logic, the rational mind, or reasoning. It can also mean "mindfulness," or deep observation of things in the present moment. A general definition for thought or nian is "mental activity"-- a part of being human and alive is having mental activity. When the word "nian" appears twice as in "nian nian," it is often translated literally as "thought after thought," but can mean "moment after moment," or "thought moment after thought moment," to express "time." So "thought" includes every mental activity from thinking to observation. For example, mindfulness of the breath is not thinking about the breath, but placing your awareness on or observing your breath.
Does "no thought" mean we should not have thinking, mental activity, or mindfulness? It may seem that Chan practice tells us not to think. When engaging in Chan practice, we may have an attitude of trying to suppress our thoughts or mental activities. When thoughts arise, we may fight them or try to get rid of them, which may lead to suppressing our mental activity.
During the time of Master Hui-neng, there were people whose sole occupations were to practice meditation and reach samadhi states. They thought the purpose of Chan was to get rid of all mental activity, which led to problems in their practice. In the Platform Sutra, Master Hui-neng warns people that "no thought" does not mean having no mental activity at all. That would mean we were dead, or in a vegetative state. People who cultivate deep levels of concentration or Samadhi were able to reach states where it seemed that, in their minds, there were little or no thoughts or mental activity, no physical body, or environment. A term for these samadhi states is the "formless realm," where, to the practitioner, there seems to be nothingness and they experience the ground of purity after letting go of all thoughts. Because it is a peaceful experience, many practitioners sought to remain in this state of nothingness and purity. Master Hui-neng uses the term "no thought" in reaction to these people who try to get rid of all thoughts and experiences, as well as scholarly types who were well-versed in the Dharma and tried to understand it intellectually. These highly educated people valued their thoughts so much that their approach to practice was through thinking, analyzing, and trying to penetrate the dharma through logic and reasoning.
There are over thirty versions of the Platform Sutra, and five popular ones. Venerable referred to the most recently-discovered Dunhuang version, unearthed in the early 20th century, which arguably is the oldest version, supposedly compiled and edited by Master Hui-neng's disciple, Fa-hai. There are many English translations, adding to the numbers of versions. This talk referred to Venerable's translation of section 17 of the Sutra, as well as Shifu's explanation of it which appears in the books mentioned above. Master Hui-neng uses a simple sentence to explain its meaning: "No-thought is to be undefiled by any object." Here, "undefiled" means not being vexed, upset or disturbed by anything. Defiled means polluted or soiled. The mind becomes polluted or soiled because, in the mind, there is ignorance, hatred and greed, the three poisons or pollutants of which we are trying to "cleanse." Why are we disturbed? If we look at our mind, when we are disturbed, we can see that we have anger when we are trying to get rid of something, greed, when we are trying to get something we want, and ignorance, when we are unaware of the state of our body and mind, and are attached to things. Master Hui-neng says that this is the aim of practice. We should try not to generate vexations constantly-in Buddhism, this is called discriminating or deluded thoughts. It doesn't say how to do it; it just says not to do it. So how do we reach this aim of not being vexed?
The second prerequisite for practice is to be at ease in all environments. No matter where you go, you should feel at ease, without disturbances or complaints. You should be at ease in every situation -feel comfortable, like everyone and like every environment.
In the Sutra, Master Hui-neng calls "no-form" the substance. Shifu's explains "no-form" as the substance, method or means of reaching "no-thought." "Form" has many different connotations, the most general being "form", but there is also "mark," "sign," "image," or "characteristic." The words "phenomenon" or "thing" describes all of these terms and refers to the environment (physical things), our body (physiological things), and our mind (mental things). So "form" includes everything, in all of their aspects. Does the term "no-form" mean our goal is to experience nothing, something separate from all of these phenomena? We can look at another simple explanation of "no-form" in the Sutra: "to separate from form while in the midst of form." That means we can clearly experience everything but separate from it; in simpler terms, our mind is separated from the influence that this form may have on us. This can be done through practice. For example, we may experience discomfort, pain or hunger and be okay with it, without adding all these thoughts or being influenced by these feelings, because we have to experience it anyway.
Venerable presented a method for applying "no-form." First, we discover that we are influenced by our situation. We may discover that we feel irritable because of feelings of pain and just relax and let go of the irritable chain of thoughts and experience our pain or discomfort. When we change our attitude to just accepting our experience, we won't be focusing on it so much, and it won't attract our attention so much. When we can do this, in the beginning, the pain may still be there, but after a while, we won't pay so much attention to it, and it won't influence our minds any more. Then we will be able to get closer to "no-form." So, in "no-form," the form is still there, the pain is still there, and the experience is still there, but the "no" means not being influenced by it. In this way, "no-form" is the substance or the means.
You may have seen Shifu's calligraphy "Without Abiding, Give Rise to Mind," which comes from the Diamond Sutra. In the Platform Sutra, Master Hui-neng praises the Diamond Sutra as excellent to recite and apply. The character "abiding" comes from the Diamond Sutra and means "abiding," "dwelling" or "attachment." In the Platform Sutra, the principle of "no-abiding" is the basis; "no-thought" is the aim, and "no-form" is the means or substance. These three principles seem to be saying the same thing. "No-abiding" is similar to "no-form" in that you do not dwell on any phenomena and don't let it disturb you. But "no-abiding" goes a step further.
For example, when we practice contemplation of the breath, we are abiding on the sensation of the breath. Instead of letting our mind be distracted, influenced and disturbed, we abide on this sensation of the breath, which is actually cultivating the abiding mind. Abiding on one thing allows our mind to be very calm and stable. People who practice this can enter very deep levels of concentration and stability. Those who practice Samadhi are actually practicing abiding, where they are fixing their mind on one point. If you read the Platform or Diamond Sutra, there is no mention of the practice of abiding on one object. Rather, the solution is to not abide in anything at all. You don't use a method to abide your mind on something, but at the same time, your mind is not scattered or disturbed. If most of us don't abide our minds on a method, our minds will be very scattered and disturbed. So we use a method. But Master Hui-neng says that we have to let go of even this abiding mind. With the abiding mind, we can achieve Samadhi, states of peace and calm, but if we want to realize wisdom, which is simultaneous with Samadhi, we must let go of abiding. Only in this non-abiding will we realize wisdom and liberation.
Samadhi is very temporary. How long can we experience the bliss of sitting meditation? Eventually, we have to get off our cushions, go to work, and handle our affairs. We can't fix our minds on our breath while interacting with people or taking care of work. We can try to go to work and fix our minds on our breath, and the boss might become afraid that all we are doing is focusing on your breath. It's impossible to abide on one object and be functioning and active in daily life. So eventually, we have to be able to let go of this abiding mind, and be able to function with wisdom.
What kind of mind should we give rise to? "Giving rise to mind" refers to wisdom and compassion in handling our daily affairs. In one respect, this mind of wisdom is able to see everything very clearly because we are not influenced by the situation and generating all these vexations and irritations based on the situation. But, at the same time, our minds still work-it still functions. We can still speak, think, and make plans, but our speaking, thinking and interactions are not based on our self-centered motives, our trying to seek something, or get away from situations which we find unpleasant. So this giving rise to mind is giving to rise to the response of wisdom and compassion.
When we take care of our daily affairs, how is our mind abiding? Usually our mind is abiding or attaching to some kind of result. We are always focused on the result. Venerable gave the example, of having to give a good dharma talk. If it's not good, he will be very upset. Maybe if he has this kind of attitude, he will be focused on how it's going to turn out, what it's going to be like, focusing on the results. That's an abiding mind. We also call this a mentality of gain and loss.
The attitude of non-abiding is the mind of giving. The mind of abiding is wanting and focusing on goals. The non-abiding mind is giving, just focusing on doing it, on the process. So an attitude of non-abiding when giving a dharma talk would be, I am just doing my best to give, to share whatever I know about "no-form." I just share. I just do my best. My mind is still functioning, I'm still talking, thinking, moving, but that vexation that comes from worrying about the result is gone. This is a non-abiding approach to giving a dharma talk.
The Diamond Sutra calls it "giving without abiding." Shifu used an everyday term to describe this mentality-"Use your mind; just don't worry your mind." To summarize the origins of "no-thought," "no-form," and "no-abiding," the basic principle is just this-we don't need to worry, we don't need to be vexed, rather we just apply ourselves. If we give of ourselves without dwelling on gain and loss, then our very existence will be of great service to all of society, the world, and all sentient beings.