Essentials of Chan Practice
The Prerequisites and Understanding Necessary to Begin Chan Practice
1. The Objective of Chan Practice
The objective of Chan practice is to illuminate the mind by eradicating its impurities and seeing into one’s true self-nature. The mind’s impurities are wrong thoughts and attachments. Self nature is the wisdom and virtue of the Tathagata. The wisdom and virtue of Buddhas and sentient beings are not different from one another. To experience this wisdom and virtue, leave behind duality, discrimination, wrong thinking and attachment. This is Buddhahood. If one cannot do this, then one remains an ordinary sentient being.
The prerequisite for Chan practice is to eradicate wrong thinking. Sakyamuni Buddha taught much on this subject. His simplest and most direct teaching is the word “stop” from the expression “stopping is Bodhi.” From the time when Bodhidharma transmitted Chan teachings to today, the winds of Chan have blown far and wide, shaking and illuminating the world. Among the many things that Bodhidharma and the Sixth Patriarch taught to those who came to study with them, none is more valuable than the saying, “Put down all entangling conditions, let not one thought arise.”
This expression is truly the prerequisite of Chan. If you cannot fulfil this requirement, then not only will you fail to attain the ultimate goal of Chan practice, but you will not even be able to enter the door of Chan. How can you talk of practicing Chan if you are entangled by worldly phenomena with thought after thought arising and passing away?
2. Put Down All Entangling Conditions
“Put down all entangling conditions, let not one thought arise” is a prerequisite for the practice of Chan. Now that we know this, how do we accomplish it? The best practitioner, one of superior abilities, can stop all thoughts forever, arrive directly at the condition of non-arising, and instantly experience Bodhi. Such a person is not entangled by anything.The next best kind of practitioner uses principle to cut off phenomena and realises that self-nature is originally pure. Vexation and Bodhi, Samsara and Nirvana – all are false names which have nothing to do with one’s self-nature. All things are dreams and illusions, like bubbles or reflections.
Within self-nature, my body, made up of the four great elements, as well as the mountains, rivers and great earth itself are like bubbles in the sea, arising and disappearing, yet never obstructing the original surface. Do not be captivated by the arising, abiding, changing and passing away of illusory phenomena, which give rise to pleasure and aversion, grasping and rejecting. Give up your whole body, as if you were dead, and the six sense organs, the six sense objects and six sense conciousnesses will naturally disperse. Greed, hatred, ignorance and love will be destroyed. All the sensations of pain, suffering and pleasure which attend the body – hunger, cold, satiation, warmth, glory, insult, birth and death, calamity, prosperity, good and bad luck, praise, blame, gain and loss, safety and danger – will no longer be your concern. Only this can be considered true renunciation – when you put everything down forever. This is what is meant by renouncing all phenomena.
When all phenomena are renounced, wrong thoughts disappear, discrimination does not arise, and attachment is left behind. When thoughts no longer arise, the brightness of self-nature manifests itself completely. At this time you will have fulfilled the necessary conditions for Chan practice. Then, further hard work and sincere practice will enable you to illuminate the mind and see into your true nature.
3. Everyone Can Instantly Become a Buddha
Many Chan practitioners ask questions about the Dharma. The Dharma that is spoken is not the true Dharma. As soon as you try to explain things, the true meaning is lost. When you realize that “one mind” is the Buddha, from that point on there is nothing more to do. Everything is already complete. All talk about practice or attainment is demonic deception.
Bodhidharma’s “Direct pointing at the mind, seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood” clearly states that all sentient beings are Buddhas. Once pure self-nature is recognized, one can harmonize with the environment yet remain undefiled. The mind will remain unified throughout the day, whether walking, standing, sitting or lying down. This is to already be a Buddha. At this point there is no need to put forth effort and be diligent. Any action is superfluous. No need to bother with the slightest thought or word. Therefore, to become a Buddha is the easiest, most unobstructed task. Do it by yourself. Do not seek outside yourself for it.
The vow to deliver all sentient beings, made by all the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and patriarchs, is not a boast nor is it a baseless, empty vow. The Dharma is exactly that. It has been elucidated again and again by the Buddha and the patriarchs. They have exhorted us with the truth. They do not deceive us.
4. Investigating Chan and Contemplating Mind
Our sect focuses on investigating Chan. The purpose of practising Chan is to “Illuminate the mind and see into one’s true nature.” This investigation is also called “Clearly realizing one’s self-mind and completely perceiving one’s original nature.”
Since the time when Buddha held up a flower and Bodhidharma came from the East, the methods for entry into this Dharma door have continually evolved. Most Chan practitioners, before the T’ang and Sung dynasties, became enlightened after hearing a word or half a sentence of the Dharma. The transmission from master to disciple was the sealing of Mind with Mind. There was no fixed Dharma. Everyday questions and answers untied the bonds. It was nothing more than prescribing the right medicine for the right illness.
After the Sung dynasty, however, people did not have such good karmic roots as their predecessors. They could not carry out what had been said. For example, practitioners were taught to “Put down everything” and “Not think about good or evil,” but they could not do it. They could not put down everything, and if they weren’t thinking about good, they were thinking about evil. Under these circumstances, the patriarchs had no choice but to use poison to fight poison, so they taught the method of investigating gongans (ie. Koans) and hua-t’ous.1
When one begins looking into a hua-t’ou, one must grasp it tightly, never letting go. It is like a mouse trying to chew its way out of a coffin. It concentrates on one point. The mouse doesn’t try different places and it doesn’t stop until it gets through. Thus, in terms of hua-t’ou, the objective is to use one thought to eradicate innumerable other thoughts. This method is a last resort, just as if someone had been pierced by a poison arrow, drastic measures must be taken to cure the patient.
The ancients used gongans, but later on practitioners started using hua-t’ou. Some hua-t’ous are: “Who is dragging this corpse around?” “Before you were born what was your original face?” and “Who is reciting the Buddha’s name?”
In fact, all hua-t’ous are the same. There is nothing uncommon, strange or special about them. If you wanted to, you could say: “Who is reciting the sutras?” “Who is reciting the mantras?” “Who is prostrating to the Buddha?” “Who is eating?” “Who is wearing these clothes?” “Who is walking?” “Who is sleeping?” They are all the same. The answer to the question “who” is derived from one’s Mind. Mind is the origin of all words. Thoughts come out of Mind; Mind is the origin of all thoughts. Innumerable Dharmas generate from the Mind; Mind is the origin of all Dharmas. In fact, hua-t’ou is a thought. Before a thought arises, that is Mind. Before a thought arises there is the origin of words. Hence, looking into a hua-t’ou is contemplating Mind. There was Mind before your parents gave birth to you, so looking into your original face before you were born is contemplating Mind.
Self-nature is Mind. When one turns inward to hear one’s self-nature, one is turning inward to contemplate Mind. In the phrase, “Perfectly illuminating pure awareness,” pure awareness is Mind and illumination is contemplation. Mind is Buddha. When one recites Buddha’s name one contemplates Buddha. Contemplating Buddha is contemplating Mind.
Investigating hua-t’ou or “looking into who is reciting Buddha’s name ” is contemplating Mind. Hence contemplating Mind is contemplating pure awareness. It is also illuminating the Buddha-nature within oneself. Mind is nature, pure awareness, Buddha. Mind has no form, no characters, no directions; it cannot be found in any particular place. It cannot be grasped. Originally, Mind is purity, universally embracing all Dharma realms. No in or out, no coming or going. Originally, Mind is pure Dharmakaya.
When investigating hua-t’ou, the practitioner should first close down all six sense organs and seek where thoughts arise. Practitioners should concentrate on the hua-t’ou until they see the pure original mind which is apart from thoughts. If one does this without interruption, the mind becomes fine, quiet, tranquil, silently illuminating. At that moment the five skandas are empty, body and mind are extinguished, nothing remains. From that point, walking, standing, siting and lying down are all done motionlessly. In time the practice will deepen, and eventually practitioners will see their self-nature and become Buddhas and suffering will cease.
A past patriarch named Kao-feng (1238-1295) once said: “You must contemplate hua-t’ou like a falling roof tile sinking endlessly down into a pond ten thousand feet deep. If in seven days you are not enlightened, I will give you permission to chop off my head.” These are the words of an experienced person. He did not speak lightly. His words are true.
Although many modern day practitioners use hua-t’ou, few get enlightened. This is because compared to practitioners of the past, practitioners today have inferior karmic roots and less merit. Also, practitioners today are not clear about the purpose and path of hua-t’ou. Some practitioners search from east to west and from north to south until they die, but still do not penetrate even one hua-t’ou. They never understand or correctly approach the hua-t’ou. They only grasp the form and the words. They use their intellect and attach only to the tail of the words.
Hua-t’ou is One Mind. This mind is not inside, outside or in the middle. On the other hand, it is inside, outside and in the middle. It is like the stillness of empty space prevailing everywhere.
Hua-t’ou should not be picked up. Neither should it be pressed down. If you pick it up, your mind will waver and become unstable. If you press it down you will become drowsy. These approaches are contrary to the nature of the original mind and are not in accordance with the Middle Path.
Practitioners are distressed by wandering thoughts. They think it is difficult to tame them. Don’t be afraid of wandering thoughts. Do not waste your energy trying to repress them. All you have to do is recognize them. Do not attach to any wandering thoughts, do not follow them, and do not try to get rid of them. As long as you don’t string thoughts together, wandering thoughts will depart by themselves.