Ch’an Tradition: History, Theory, Practice Lecture given by Master Sheng-Yen

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Master Sheng Yen_1
Master Sheng Yen_1

Ch’an Tradition: History, Theory, Practice Lecture given by Master Sheng-Yen on October 21, 1992 at Washington University

When we speak of Ch’an as it developed in China, we must recognize the difficulties in separating the specific concepts of Ch’an from those of Buddhism in general. It is in fact impossible for someone to achieve the highest attainment in Buddhism without some experience or practice equivalent to that available in the Ch’an tradition.
Buddhism emphasizes the recognition and attainment of wisdom. Without the reality of this attainment, Buddhism means nothing. But why do we cultivate wisdom? To resolve internal struggles and suffering, and to deal with the problems we encounter. The goal of Buddhism, therefore, is to attain wisdom through the guidance of Buddhist concepts and methods of practice similar to those found in the Ch’an tradition.

Buddhism was first brought to China at about the time of Jesus. In this early period dhyana contemplation was the method of practice used. This is a system that helps one to calm the mind and come to an understanding of self in order to bring about wisdom. The introduction of this method as a way to open a path to wisdom was important to the transmission of Buddhism to China.

You may have heard it said that Ch’an Buddhism resembles a religion, but is not truly a religion. Ch’an Buddhism is indeed a religion. Religions speak of faith, and the practice of Ch’an cannot be accomplished without faith. For a discussion of the importance of faith in Ch’an practice, please refer to my book Faith in Mind. However, the faith we speak of in the Ch’an tradition is different from the faith in other religions, which emphasize belief in supernormal beings or gods which are distinct from oneself. Ch’an stresses the importance of having faith in the teachings of the Buddha. These teachings show that everyone has Buddha-nature and that everyone can therefore attain Buddhahood. Every human being who truly has faith in the teachings of the Buddha and follows the principles and methods of practice can become a Buddha.

There are many stories in the Ch’an tradition about disciples asking their masters the question, “What did Bodhidharma bring from India to China?” The answers from all the masters appear to be different, but their essential point is the same: Bodhidharma didn’t bring anything to China, just himself. He went to China to tell people that everyone has Buddha-nature and everyone can attain Buddhahood.

When the disciple in one such story asked why, the master replied, “Because it already existed in China.” The disciple continued, “If it already existed in China, then why did he have to come?” The master answered, “If he did not come, people in China would not know that Buddha-nature exists in every sentient being.” Bodhidharma went to China with nothing but himself to spread the message that everyone has Buddha-nature and that everyone should have faith in it. Before becoming enlightened, one must have faith that one has Buddha-nature.

The Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng, probably contributed the most to the development of Ch’an. His most important teaching can be summarized in the phrase, “No abiding, no thought, no form.” One must experience the state of mind to which these phrases refer to realize the Buddha-nature in oneself. Even though we speak of Buddha-nature, there is nothing concrete which we could point to as Buddha-nature. This is the essence of emptiness — sunyata. When Bodhidharma went to China, he mentioned something called the Tathagatagarbha, a term which means that everyone has Buddha-nature.

In the Platform Sutra, the teaching of “No abiding, no thought, no form,” was consistent with the essential teaching of the Diamond Sutra — emptiness. We should not mistake Buddha-nature for something concrete or unchangeable, for then Ch’an would be indistinguishable from a formal religion which emphasizes faith in something external, monolithic and unchanging. This is not correct.

The fourth generation disciple of the Sixth Patriarch, Master Chao-chou, had a disciple ask him the following question: “If all sentient beings are supposed to have Buddha-nature, what about dogs?” The master answered, “No.” On the surface, this answer seems to contradict what the Buddhadharma teaches. But we need to understand that Buddha-nature is not concrete or unchanging. This kind of dialogue, which seems paradoxical, contradictory or nonsensical became a method of practice called kung-an or hua-t’ou.

There are four key concepts in Ch’an: faith, understanding, practice and realization. Faith belongs to the realm of religion, understanding is philosophical, practice is belief put into action, and realization is enlightenment. All these put together create the door which one enters to attain wisdom. In general, without faith, it is difficult to understand; without understanding, you can’t practice; and without practice, enlightenment is impossible.

Basically, one must have faith that all beings have Buddha-nature and understand that Buddha-nature is not something unchanging and substantial. When we begin practice and have not really accepted the existence of Buddha-nature, we must have faith in its existence. If we do not, we will not be receptive to the teachings or be able to put them to use. But once one has accepted the existence of Buddha-nature, it is important not to think of it as static or concrete. If we cling to the conception of Buddha-nature as essentially unchanging, we will think there is a true self within us. We will embrace that self, whether it is a true or false self. We will be limited by and attached to that idea of self and will never attain liberation. First one must accept the existence of Buddha-nature, then abandon it completely because there is no such thing. In this way one can truly experience moving from existence to non-existence.

We know that Ch’an practice involves meditation, and that it can be an uncomfortable process, especially because of physical pain. This is why a few early Ch’ an masters did not encourage sitting meditation. Even the old manuscripts and documents show no evidence of the Sixth Patriarch sitting in meditation either before or after his enlightenment.
The first two generations of masters after the Sixth Patriarch also de-emphasized the importance of meditation, as can be seen in the famous story about Ma-tsu and his master, Nan-yue. One day while Ma-tsu was sitting in meditation, Nanyue used a very skillful method to point out its weakness. He asked Ma-tsu, “What are you doing?” Ma-tsu replied, “I am meditating.” Nanyue said, “Why?” To which Ma-tsu responded, “I do it to attain Buddhahood.” Nan-yue said nothing but picked up a brick and started polishing it. Ma-tsu asked, “Why are you doing that?” Nanyue said, “I am making a mirror.” Ma-tsu thought about it and asked, “How is it possible for a brick to become a mirror?” Nan-yue replied, “If one cannot polish a brick to make it become a mirror, then how can you become a Buddha by meditating?” This dialogue is still a popular teaching, and it is one of my favorite hua-t’ou’s as well. So it is not necessary to meditate to attain Buddhahood or enlightenment.

I have been teaching meditation for over a dozen years and I’ve come across quite a few very intelligent people who want to use the ancient way of practice used by the Sixth Patriarch and Nan-yue. They do not want to sit in meditation or do not want meditation to take too much time or cause pain. To these people I say that the ancient Ch’an masters are gone now. Modern Ch’an masters require meditation practice.

Prior to the Sixth Patriarch, the Third, Fourth and Fifth Patriarchs all emphasized the practice of meditation. Only the Sixth Patriarch and his followers didn’t agree on this point. We do know from manuscript records that Ma-tsu’s disciple, Pai-chang, had on-going meditation at his monastery. We may say that enlightenment does not come only from meditation, but meditating is nonetheless a necessary step toward liberation. The guidance of Ch’an concepts is also essential in conjunction with meditation practice. With the guidance of a good teacher, strong practice and Ch’an teachings, enlightenment is not far.

Only through the method of meditation can we calm the mind. Once that has been achieved, then we can reduce our subjective and selfish habits which cause so much vexation. When the mind is calmed to a tranquil or unified state, then it is possible to see what the self is.

There are essentially two major schools of Ch’an: Lin-chi, which uses the methods of kung-an and hua-t’ou, and Ts’ao-tung, which uses the method of silent illumination. Using the methods of either of these schools can lead to enlightenment, but regardless of which one a practitioner adopts, there is a similar preparation. First, one must be able to relax both body and mind and then bring oneself to a concentrated, unified state. Only at this point can the methods of kung-an and huat’ou or silent illumination be used. The process of meditation is long. It is not something one can accomplish by reading a couple of phrases. It involves long, sustained, practice.