Chan Newsletter

What is Ch’an? (2)

Ch’an is a form of Buddhism that originated in China. It was transmitted to Japan where it became known as Zen, the name most familiar to Westerners. The ultimate goal of Ch’an is the realization of one’s true nature and the expression of this realization in our interactions with others. The goal is nothing less than the attainment of our full potential as Buddhas — the embodiment of wisdom and compassion.

The path of Ch’an meditation practice also benefits people physically, psychologically and spiritually.

In Dharma Drum, Ch’an Master Sheng-yen writes:

“You may have heard that Ch’an Buddhism resembles a religion, but is not truly a religion. Ch’an Buddhism is indeed a religion. Religion requires faith, and the practice of Ch’an cannot be accomplished without faith. Understand, though, that the faith we speak of in the Ch’an tradition is different from faith as it is conceived in other religions, which emphasize belief in supernormal beings or gods distinct from oneself. Ch’an stresses the importance of having faith in the Dharma, or teachings of the Buddha. These teachings tell us that everyone has Buddha-nature and that everyone can 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.

“When we discuss the development of Ch’an in China, we face difficulties in separating specific concepts shaping Ch’an from those of Buddhism in general. The fact is that it is impossible to achieve the highest attainment in Buddhism without the experience of practice equivalent to that found in the Ch’an tradition. Buddhism emphasizes the cultivation and realization of wisdom, which resolves internal struggles and suffering. But how do we cultivate wisdom? We rely on the guidance of Buddhist methods similar to those found in Ch’an practice.

“Buddhism was first brought to China about one thousand years after Sakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment and introduced the world to the Dharma. During Buddhism’s early period, dhyana cultivation was set forth as the primary method of practice. Dhyana cultivation systematically calms the mind which, in turn, catalyzes an understanding of self that generates wisdom. The introduction of this method as an opening to the path of wisdom was important to the transmission of Buddhism to China.

“There are many stories in the Ch’an tradition about disciples asking their masters the question, ‘What did Boddhidharma bring from India to China?’ The answers from all the masters appear to be different, but their essential point is the same: Bodhidharma brought nothing to China but himself. He went to China to tell people that everyone has Buddha-nature and that everyone can attain Buddha-hood.”

“The Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng (638-713), probably contributed the most to the development of Ch’an. His teachings can be summarized in the phrase: ‘No abiding, no thought, no form.’ You must experience the state of mind to which these phrases refer, realize the Buddha-nature in yourself, and realize as well that even though we speak of Buddha-nature, we can point to no concrete form that gives it shape. Buddha-nature is the essence of emptiness – sunyata.”

“Ch’an encompasses four key concepts: 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. Without faith, we cannot understand; without understanding, we cannot practice; and without practice, we cannot realize enlightenment. Together, these four concepts create the doorway we enter to attain wisdom.”

“Ch’an practice involves meditation, which can be an uncomfortable, physically painful process. Perhaps 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.”

“Prior to the Sixth Patriarch, the Third, Fourth and Fifth Patriarchs all emphasized the practice of meditation… We may say that enlightenment does not come from meditation, but meditating is nonetheless a necessary step toward liberation. And Ch’an teaching should work in conjunction with meditation practice. With the guidance of a good teacher, strong practice, and Ch’an teachings, enlightenment is not far away.

“We can calm the mind only by using a method of meditation. Once the mind is calm, we can reduce the subjective and habitual patterns of self-based notions that cause so much vexation. When we achieve a tranquil or unified state of awareness, it is possible to see just what the self is.

“There are essentially two major schools of Ch’an meditation: Lin-chi (Jp. Rinzai), which uses the methods of kung-an or hua-t’ou, and Ts’ao-tung (Jp. Soto), which uses the method of silent illumination. Using the methods of either of these schools can lead to enlightenment, and regardless of which one you adopt, you must first be able to relax both body and mind and then bring yourself to a concentrated, unified state of mind. Only at this point can you use the methods of kung-an or hua-t’ou and silent illumination.

“You cannot fulfill the process of meditation by reading a couple of phrases in a book. Meditation involves long, sustained practice.”

Category: Chan Newsletter