Ch'an Newsletter - No. 19 February 1982


When Ch'an Master Kao-feng Yuan-miao (1238-1295) met up with Ch'an Master Hsueh-yen Tsu-ch'in (1216-1287), the latter asked the former : "You've been practicing for so long. At this point, can you be your master during the daytime?" (That is to say, do you have a good control over yourself - you don't think about things you don't want to think about and you don't do what you don't want to do.) Kao-feng immediately replied : "Yes, I can!" This is already a very good accomplishment. Only someone who has practiced for a long time would be able to say this of himself.

Then Hsueh-yen questioned him a second time : "At night in your dreams, can you be your own master?" And again Kao-feng answered promptly : "Yes, I can!"

Hsueh-yen asked a third question : "When you are sleeping without any dreams, where is the master then?"

Now Kao-feng had already been working on the "Wu" kung-an for quite a long time. Upon being asked this question he was completely stumped. He repeated the question to himself but could not give an answer. So Hsueh-yen told Kao-feng: "From now on, do not study any Buddha Dharma, don't read any sutras or sastras. Just do not bother about anything. Just practice well. And how should you practice? When you are hungry, eat. When you are tired, go to sleep. When you have slept enough, get up and practice well."

From that time onward, Kao-feng indeed just listened to the master's words. When he was hungry, he ate, when he felt tired, he went to sleep, and just tried very hard to practice. What did he practice on? He asked himself : "Where is my master?" He kept on using this method for five years. Even during his sleep, he continued asking, "Where is my master?"

There are various stages involved here. The first one is the question of whether we can be our own master during the daytime. What we do not want to think, we will not think about; what we do not want to do, we will not do. How many of you can be your own master in this sense? Why is it that you cannot be your own master? The fact that Master Kao-feng could answer positively to the first question indicates that he is already on a higher level than an ordinary person.

To be able to be one's own master in dreams requires even a deeper level of practice. It means that you can control your own behavior in your dreams, and moreover, you can control the type and content of the dreams. While dreaming, your mind is very clear. You will not have random or meaningless dreams. This kind of person is actually still practicing while dreaming. He always maintains right mindfulness, or virtuous thoughts, that is, he will not do or think anything in the dream which are not considered permissible in daily life. To be one's own master in your dreams means that you continue the same practice that you are doing during the day. If you prostrate to the Buddha during the day, then you will continue prostrating in the dream. If you recite Buddha's name, then even in dreams you still recite Buddha's name. If you are delivering sentient beings, then you also deliver sentient beings in your dreams. If you are working on a kung-an, then even in dreams the kung-an will not leave you.

Not to have dreams at all is on a higher level still. There are only two kinds of people who do not have dreams when they sleep. One is the idiot, and the other is the saint, or sage. These people have dreamless sleep. They are just in a state of rest. This is very difficult to accomplish. It is already very good if you can reach the level where you no longer have any confused or evil dreams. But it is very hard for the ordinary person to get to the level of not having any dreams at all. This Ch'an Master Kao-feng had already reached the stage where, at least most of the time, he was able to sleep without dreaming. But does that mean that all his problems had been resolved? Actually, being able to sleep without dreams only indicates that he had very good samadhi power. It doesn't mean that all his problems had been resolved. He still wasn't enlightened.

Therefore the question that Hsueh-yen put to him was very appropriate, and it became a hua-t'ou for Kao-feng. He just kept on asking himself, "When I go to sleep and don't have any dreams, where is my master? Where is my master? Where is my master?" He kept on asking for five years, because he had a great doubt associated with this question. But we should remember that even before he started on this hua-t'ou, he had already reached the state where he could be his own master in daytime, at nighttime, and in fact, he had very few dreams. So his practice involved a very long process.

One evening he woke up from sleep and extended his hand to feel for his pillow. At that point, the pillow dropped from the sleeping platform with a thud. At that sound, Kao-feng shouted, "Aha! Now I found you!" The cloud of doubt was broken, he had emerged from the barrel of black pitch and seen the light. This is an example of one practitioner's path.

Spoken on December 10, 1981
by Master Sheng-yen
in the Assistant's Training Class

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