When Buddhism spread to China, it developed into the Five Schools: the Chan School, the Teachings School, the Vinaya School, the Pure Land School, and the Secret School. The Chan School investigates Chan samadhi (meditative concentration); the Teachings School studies the doctrines; the Vinaya School studies the moral precepts; the Pure Land School practices Buddha recitation; and the Secret School recites mantras. We are now holding a Chan session, so for the time being, we discuss only the principles of Chan meditation and not the other four schools.
Chan translates as "thought-cultivation," because one is always contemplating the matter of meditation. What matter is that? It is simply the meditation topic one is investigating. We look into the question, "Who is reciting the Buddha's name?" This single sentence is the topic in our investigation of Chan. In fact, investigating this topic is another kind of idle thinking. This method is known as "fighting fire with fire." We set one idle thought in action to wipe out many idle thoughts. To reach success with this method, we must work at it for a long time. A saying goes, "After long-term cultivation, there will be Chan."
"Investigation" is similar to drilling wood: you don't stop until the drill bit makes a hole all the way through the wood. If you stop halfway, then your earlier efforts will all have been in vain. The first priority in Chan meditation is patience. When you can be patient to the extreme point, then you can reach a state of "not even one thought arising." When not even one thought arises, you can get enlightened. As the saying goes, "Take one more step from the top of the hundred-foot pole." At that time, when you can take yet another step from the very top of a hundred-foot pole, "the worlds throughout the ten directions manifest in their entirety." To gain success, however, you must apply yourself constantly, in thought after thought, without any laziness or slacking off. A verse in the Song of Enlightenment says:
When you suddenly awaken to the Chan of the Tathagatas, Then the Six Paramitas and the Myriad Practices are complete within your substance.
In a dream, very clearly, you perceive all the Six Realms of Rebirth.
When you awaken, then you see all as empty and void, and not one bit of the universe exists at all.
"Suddenly" here means that you immediately understand a principle. As it's said, "We may awaken to the truth of a principle suddenly, but we must cultivate the specifics gradually." The specifics must be cultivated one step at a time, yet the principle may be awakened to all of a sudden. For instance, after enlightenment, we know there is a well nearby from which we can draw water. Before our enlightenment, we may have heard the sound of the wellpulley and rope for a long time, and yet not have known where the well was located. This analogy explains where the Buddha-nature comes from. How do we realize this Buddha-nature? There is no other method to realize it: it can only be realized through Chan meditation.
Bodhisattvas use the Six Paramitas as their method of cultivation. They are: (1) giving, which takes stinginess across; (2) moral precepts, which take across transgressions; (3) patience, which takes across hatred; (4) vigor, which takes across laxness; (5) Chan concentration, which takes across scatteredness, and (6) wisdom, which takes across stupidity. Only when these Six Paramitas have been cultivated to perfection can one become enlightened.
We are all now living in the midst of a dream. A verse goes,
In life it's all a dream;
In death, a dream as well.
Dreaming, we enjoy glory and wealth;
Awake, we're back in the gutters.
We dream every day,
Unaware that the dream takes no longer than a quick supper.
If we fail to wake up to our present dream,
Then we've dreamt through it all in vain.
In the dream, we see very clearly there are six paths of rebirth, (which are the heavens, the realms of humans, asuras, animals, and hungry ghosts, and the hells). Once we awaken, however, and get enlightened, then the entire trichiliocosm no longer exists. Why not? Because we are no longer attached to it. When we are no longer attached, then all the myriad creatures in existence completely return to their origin. How could any further trace of self exist? How could any traces of others, of living beings, or of a life span remain? None of these exist any longer. Some people, after they learn that the four traces can be made to disappear, won't dare cultivate any longer. They get upset at the idea of there being no more people, living beings, or life spans. They exclaim, "If there is no more work left to do, I will be out of a job!"
Is it certain that you need to go to work? That idea only insures that you will continue to be upside-down forever. If you can cultivate to the state of being free of the four traces and you can actually "Sweep out all dharmas, and leave all traces behind," then you'll certify to the realization of a principle, which is the ultimate reality of all dharmas. It's called,
Don't set up even a single dharma;
Empty out all the myriad things.
This does not refer to glibly discussing this principle on an intellectual level. Rather, you must actually certify to and attain this state. At that time, for you, there will be no further suffering; there will be only happiness.
For those of us here in the world, if we aren't attached to fame, then we're attached to profit. If we aren't attached to wealth, then we're attached to sex. So we find ourselves unable to see through things, unable to put things down. We may want to do so, but in the end, we still can't let them go. Why can't we let them go? Because our smart bugs and our intellectual cleverness are acting up. Due to them, we miss many prime opportunities. We let them slip through our fingers, and, before our very eyes, we fail to recognize Guanshiyin Bodhisattva. Even though Guanshiyin Bodhisattva is right before our eyes, we still go running all over looking for him elsewhere; thus we are controlled by our upside-down, idle thinking.
The word "investigation" in the phrase "investigating Chan" means "to contemplate." What is there to contemplate? We use contemplative Prajna. This means to contemplate our own presence in thought after thought. It does not mean to contemplate others' presence. We should contemplate whether or not we are fully here. If we are, then we have the ability to investigate Chan and meditate, and we can use our skill in cultivation. But if we are not here, and are indulging in idle thoughts instead, our mind scatters to the wind. Then even though our body may be present in the Chan hall, our mind has run off to New York for a bit of sight-seeing, or perhaps run off to Rome for a holiday. Our mind has gone out to climb the social ladder, so, as a result, we lack self-presence; we are "not here."
When we learn to contemplate with self-presence, we can become Bodhisattvas. When we contemplate without self-presence, we are only ordinary humans. When we contemplate with self-presence, we are in the heavens. If we contemplate without self-presence, then we are in the hells. But if we can contemplate with self-presence without our thoughts running away, then we can practice the profound Prajna Paramita. Being here, with our bodies present in the Chan hall, our minds continue the investigation without cease. We investigate without interruption. Only this counts as "practicing the profound Prajna Paramita" and finding wisdom. Only after we have attained great wisdom can we really reach the other shore.
The secret formula for investigating Chan is to stick to it day and night. Keep thinking it over. Think about, "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" We contemplate today and contemplate tomorrow, and every day we are in the Chan Hall, practicing the profound Prajna Paramita. We cannot expect to taste the actual flavor of Chan in a short period of time. Only after long practice can we know its real taste. When we have the skill of practicing the profound Prajna Paramita, then we can contemplate the Five Aggregates (Skandhas) as empty.
The Five Aggregates are also called the Five Shadows. Aggregates means "heaps" or "gatherings." "Shadows" means "blockages" or "coverings." Why have we failed to obtain self-mastery and liberation? Because we are covered over by the Five Aggregates, which are form, feelings, thoughts, activities, and consciousness.
1. The Aggregate of Form. "Obstructing objects" are forms; things with shape and features are forms. Before we have emptied out the form aggregate, we are likely to see forms and be confused by them, or hear sounds and be confused by them, or smell scents and be confused by them, or taste flavors and be confused by them, or feel sensations and be confused by them. If we can empty out the Aggregate of Form, then we can realize a state of there being "no mind inside, no body outside, and no things beyond."
Forms include the many colors, all of which can dim our eyes, so that we can't see clearly. They make us just like blind people. In the Classic of the Way and Its Virtue, it is said,
The five colors blind the eyes;
The five musical notes deafen the ears;
The five flavors dull the palate.
All such states result from being confused by the Aggregate of Form. If we can break through the Aggregate of Form and see that the mountains, the rivers, the earth itself, and all the buildings on it are empty, then none of these troubles will exist. Thus we say that before the Aggregate of Form has been emptied out, one will still be attached to forms. As long as one is attached to forms, one has not broken through the Delusions of Views.
Delusions of Views refers to experiencing greed and love for the states we encounter. States here refer to pretty forms. When beautiful things appear before us, we may experience feelings of love and craving for them and become attached to them. There are eighty-eight categories of Delusions of Views, and if one severs them completely, one then realizes the first stage of Arhatship. Cultivators of the Way first sever these eighty-eight categories of Delusions of Views in the Triple Realm, and then continue to sever eighty-one categories of Delusions of Thoughts in the Triple Realm.
Delusions of Thoughts refers to letting confusion over certain principles lead us to discriminating thinking. That is, we don't clearly understand certain principles. When one severs the eighty-one categories of Delusions of Thoughts within the Triple Realm, one then realizes the Fourth Stage of Arhatship.
2. The Aggregate of Feelings. This refers to the feelings that we experience. For instance, a certain situation may arise; we accept it without even thinking about it, and we feel it's a comfortable state. An example would be when we eat some delicious food and its flavor makes us feel quite pleasant. This is what we mean by feelings. Or if we wear a fine piece of clothing and it makes us feel quite attractive, this is also a typical feeling. Or if we live in a nice house that we feel looks quite handsome, this is a feeling. Or if we ride in a fancy automobile and we feel quite comfortable, this is also a feeling. In general, all experiences that the body accepts and enjoys are considered to be the Aggregate of Feelings at work.
3. The Aggregate of Thoughts. This refers to our thinking processes. When our five sense organs perceive the five sense objects, a variety of idle thoughts arise. Many ideas suddenly come to mind and then are suddenly gone: ideas of forms, ideas of feelings.
4. The Aggregate of Activities. This refers to a process of shifting and flowing. The Aggregate of Activities leads us to come and go, to go and come without end in a constant, ceaseless, flowing pattern. Our idle thoughts compel us to impulsively do good or do evil, and such thoughts then manifest in our actions and our words.
5. The Aggregate of Consciousness. This refers to the process of discrimination. As soon as a situation appears, we begin to discriminate in our thoughts about that situation. For example, when we see something beautiful, we have thoughts of fondness towards it; and when we hear ugly sounds, we have thoughts of dislike for those sounds. All such discriminations are part of this Aggregate.
If someone can break through these Five Aggregates, he can then cross beyond all suffering and difficulty. Such a person will undergo no further disasters and troubles. Why do disasters and troubles beset us? Because we are still attached to a self and to dharmas; because these two attachments have not been emptied out.
The Song of Enlightenment by Great Master Yongjia says,
The Five Aggregates are mere floating clouds, aimlessly drifting back and forth.
And the Three Poisons are only bubbles of foam, rising and sinking on the tides.
The Five Aggregates, in fact, have no nature of their own, just like clouds floating in space. Very spontaneously they appear, and spontaneously they disappear. If we fail to understand this principle and let ourselves be covered over by the Aggregates, we will be neither free nor liberated. We should be skillful in cultivation, so that when the Five Aggregates arise, we can break through them. When they come, they come on their own, and when they go, they are free to leave on their own. We need not pay attention to them. Nor do we need to attach to them. Greed, anger, and stupidity are just like bubbles of foam on the water; they basically have no real substance. Born of themselves, they vanish of themselves; and if we don't attach to them, they cease to exist. The Song of Enlightenment by Great Master Yongjia also says,
Realize Ultimate Reality, and people and
dharmas no longer exist.
In that instant we eradicate the karma of
the Relentless Hells.
If I am deceiving living beings,
May I fall into the hells where tongues are
ripped out, for endless eons.
"Ultimate Reality" here means the state wherein "there are no traces, yet nothing lacks traces"; a state wherein we can "sweep out all dharmas and leave all traces behind." One is said to have "returned to the origin and realized the purity of his inherent nature." In such a state, there are no further people or things that can be known: both of these are gone for good. One no longer maintains attachments to people or to dharmas. Then one is said to have realized the principle and substance of Ultimate Reality.
Then in a split second one can wipe away completely all the karma that destines one for the Relentless Hells. Karma gathered from countless eons in the past can be wiped away completely, without a trace. Great Master Yongjia says, "If I am deceiving people with lies, then I am perfectly willing to fall into the hells where tongues are ripped out and suffer for an eternity of time."
As we sit in the Chan hall, we must actually go and cultivate. Our work is just like reeling silk off a cocoon. We must be patient and proceed gradually. Only then can we avoid tangling the thread. We may not try to get clever and invent shortcuts, nor use a scientific, improved method to get enlightened. That amounts to mere idle thinking. If science could bring us enlightenment, then the scientists would not forever be painting themselves into corners, but would long ago have become enlightened; and nobody else after that would ever get a chance at it! We needn't build castles in the air, but need only follow the tried-and-true procedures: cultivate hard and look into "Who is reciting the Buddha's name?" Be patient when your back aches and your legs hurt. When your patience has reached maturity, you will spontaneously become enlightened. A saying goes,
If they hadn't endured the bone-chilling cold,
How could the plum blossoms smell so sweet?
Please attend to this, everyone! Don't be so clever that your cleverness obstructs you. Don't be too smart for your own good. Know that each bit of work yields a bit of skill. Cultivation requires true skill, not mere lip service. To be able to talk about cultivation without really being able to do it is useless. Paying lip service not only does not advance your enlightenment, it becomes an obstruction instead. Thus a saying goes, "Only in silence is it actually Chan."
A beam of spiritual light flashes throughout heaven and earth, illuminating it totally. You become identical with all Buddhas of the ten directions and the three periods of time. Why have we failed to realize the Buddha's Three Bodies, Four Modes of Wisdom, Five Eyes, and Six Spiritual Powers? Because our worldly idle thinking is simply too dense. It obstructs our wisdom. Idle thinking takes our light away and turns it into ignorance. All day long we do nothing but indulge in delusion, create bad karma, and receive the retribution of unending rounds of birth and death.
The Three Bodies are the Dharma-body, the Reward-body, and the Response-body. The Four Modes of Wisdom are the Wisdom That Accomplishes What Should Be Done, the Wisdom of Wondrous Contemplation, the Wisdom of Equal Nature, and the All-Encompassing, Mirror-like Wisdom. The Five Eyes are the Heavenly-eye, the Flesh-eye (which is not our human eyes), the Dharma-eye,the Wisdom-eye, and the Buddha-eye. The Six Spiritual Powers are the Power of the Heavenly-eye, the Power of the Heavenly-ear, the Power of Knowing Others' Thoughts, the Power of Knowing Past Lives, the Power of Spiritual Travel, and the Power of the Ending of Outflows. When someone puts an end to all idle thinking, he or she can realize states such as these. In fact, this is not an esoteric principle, but a very natural phenomenon that arises from actual spiritual skill. We need not consider these states strange or unusual, for they are quite natural.
From beginningless time in the past until now we have been covered over by ignorance and have not heard the instructions of a Good and Wise Advisor. We don't know the meaning of "understanding the mind and seeing the nature." Nor do we know the meaning of "returning to the origin." The purpose of cultivating Chan meditation is to understand the mind and see the nature, to return to the origin and go back to the source. We can then obtain liberation and be free of impediments and obstructions. We can leave distorted dream-thinking far behind and attain Ultimate Nirvana.
A talk given during a Chan session
in December, 1980