Newsletter - No. 87, August 1991
This is Part Two of a translation of an article written by Master Hsu-yun.
The Essentials of Chan Practice
by Master Hsu-yun
Lectures on the Methods of Practice
in the Ch'an Hall
Many people come to ask me for guidance. This makes me feel ashamed.
Everyone works so hard --- splitting firewood, hoeing the fields, carrying
soil, moving bricks --- and yet from morning to night not putting down
the thought of practicing the Path. Such determination for the Path is
touching. I, Xuyun, repent my inadequacy on the Path and my lack of virtue.
I am unable to instruct you and can use only a few saying from the ancients
in response to your questions. There are four prerequisites concerning
methods of practice: (1) Deep faith in the law of cause and consequence;
(2) Strict observance of precepts; (3) Immovable faith (4) Choosing a Dharma
door method of practice.
2. Essentials of Ch'an Practice:
Our everyday activities are executed within the Path itself. Is there
anywhere that is not a place for practicing the Path? A Ch'an Hall should
not even be necessary. Furthermore, Ch'an practice is not just sitting
meditation. The Ch'an Hall and Ch'an sitting meditation are for sentient
beings with deep karmic obstructions and shallow wisdom.
When one sits in meditation, one must first know how to regulate the
body and mind. If they are not well regulated, then a small harm will turn
into an illness and a great harm will lead to demonic entanglements. This
would be most pitiable. Walking and sitting meditation in the Ch'an Hall
are for the regulation of body and mind. There are other ways to regulate
the body and mind, but I will talk about these two fundamental methods.
When you sit in the lotus position, you should sit naturally straight.
Do not push the waist forward purposely. Doing so will raise your inner
heat, which later on could result in having sand in the corner of your
eyes, bad breath, uneasy breathing, loss of appetite, and in the worst
case, vomiting blood. If dullness or sleepiness occur, open your eyes wide,
straighten your back and gently move your buttocks from side to side. dullness
will naturally vanish. If you practice with an anxious attitude, you will
have a sense of annoyance. At that time you should put everything down,
including your efforts to practice. Rest for a few minutes. Gradually,
after you recuperate, continue to practice. If you don't do this, as time
goes on you will develop a hot-tempered character, or, in the worst case,
you could go insane or fall into demonic entanglements.
There are many experiences you will encounter when sitting Ch'an, too
many to speak of. However, if you do not attach to them, they will not
interfere with you. This is why the proverb says: "See the extraordinary
yet do not think of it as being extraordinary, and the extraordinary will
retreat." If you encounter or perceive an unpleasant experience, take no
notice of it and have no fear. If you experience something pleasant, take
no notice of it and don't give rise to fondness. The Surangama Sutra says:
" If one does not think he has attained a supra mundane experience, then
this is good. On the other hand, if one thinks he has attained something
supra mundane, then he will attract demons."
3. How to Start the Practice: Distinction Between Host and Guest:
How should one begin to practice? In the Surangama assembly, Kaundinya
the Honored One mentioned the two words "guest" and "dust." This is where
beginners should begin their practice. He said, "A traveler who stops at
an inn may stay overnight or get something to eat. When he is finished
or rested, he packs and continues his journey, for he does not have time
to stay longer. If he were the host, he would have no place to go. Thus
I reason : he who does not stay is called a guest because not staying is
the essence of being a guest. He who stays is called a host. Again, on
a clear day, when the sun rises and the sunlight enters a dark room through
an opening, one can see dust in empty space. The dust is moving but the
space is still. That which is clear and still is called space; that which
is moving is called dust because moving is the essence of being dust."
Guest and dust refer to illusory thoughts, whereas host and space refer
to self-nature. That the permanent host does not follow the guest in his
comings and goings illustrates that permanent self-nature does not follow
illusory thoughts in their fleeting rise and fall. therefore it was said,
"It was said, "If one is unaffected by all things, then there will be no
obstructions even when one is constantly surrounded by things." The moving
dust does not block the clear, still empty space; illusory thoughts which
rise and fall by themselves do not hinder the self-nature of Suchness.
Thus it was said, "If my mind does not arise, all things are blameless."
In such a state of mind, even the guest does not drift with illusory thoughts.
If he understands space and dust, illusory thoughts will no longer be hindrances.
It is said that when one recognizes an enemy, there will be no more enemy
in your mind. If one can investigate and understand all this before starting
to practice, it is unlikely that one will make serious mistakes.
4. Hua tou and doubt
The ancient patriarchs pointed directly at Mind. When one sees self-nature,
one attains Buddhahood. This was the case when Bodhidharma helped his disciple
to calm his mind and when the sixth Patriarch spoke only about seeing self-nature.
All that was necessary was the direct understanding and acceptance of Mind
and nothing else. There was no such thing as investigating hua to. More
recent patriarchs, however, saw that practitioners could not throw themselves
into practice with total dedication and could not instantaneously see their
self-nature. Instead, these people played games and imitated words of wisdom,
showing off other people's treasure and imagining it was theirs. For this
reason, later patriarchs were compelled to set up schools and devise specific
ways to help practitioners, hence the method of investigating hua to.
There are many hua tos, such as "all dharmas return to one, where does
this one return to?" What was my original face before I was born?" and
so on. The most common one, however, is "who is reciting the Buddha's name?"
What is meant by hua to? Hua means the spoken word; to means the head
or beginning, so hua to means that which is before the spoken word. for
example, reciting Amitabha Buddha is a hua, and hua to is that which precedes
one's reciting the Buddha's name. The hua to is that moment before the
thought arises. Once the thought arises, it is already the tail of the
hua. The moment before the thought has arisen is called non-arising. When
one's mind is not distracted, is not dull, is not attached to quiescence,
or has not fallen into a state of nothingness, it is called non-perishing.
Single-mindedly and uninterruptedly, turning inward and illuminating the
state of non-arising and non-perishing is called investigating the hua
to, to taking care of the hua to.
To investigate the hua-t', one must first generate doubt. doubt is like
a walking cane for the method of investigating hua to. what is meant by
doubt? For example, one may ask, :who is reciting the Buddha's name?" Everyone
knows that it is he himself who is reciting the name, but is he using his
mouth or mind? If it is his mouth, then after the person dies and the mouth
still exists, how come the dead person is unable to recite Buddha's name?
If it is the mind, then what is the mind like? It cannot be known. Thus
there is something one does not understand, and this gives rise to a slight
doubt regarding the question of " who."
This doubt should never be coarse. The finer it is the better. At all
times and in all places, one should single-mindedly watch and keep this
doubt, and keep it going like a fine stream of water. Do not get distracted
by any other thought. When the doubt is there, do not disturb it. When
the doubt is no longer there, gently give rise to it again. Beginners will
find that it is more effective to use this method when stationary rather
than when moving; but you should not have a discriminating attitude. Regardless
of whether your practice is effective or not or whether you are stationary
or moving, just single-mindedly use the method and practice.
In the hua to, "Who is reciting the Buddha's name?" The emphases should
be on the word "who." The other words serve to provide a general idea,
just like in asking, "Who is dressing?" "Who is eating?" "Who in moving
their bowels?" "Who is urinating?" "Who is ignorantly fighting for an ego?"
"Who is being aware?" "Regardless of whether one is walking, standing,
sitting, or reclining, the word "who" is direct and immediate. Not having
to rely on repetitive thinking, conjecture, or attention, it is easy to
give rise to a sense of doubt.
Hence, hua to's involving the word "who " are wonderful methods for
methods for practicing Ch'an. But the idea is not to repeat, " Who is reciting
Buddha's name?" like one might repeat the Buddha's name itself; nor is
it right to use reasoning to come up with an answer to the question, thinking
that this is what is meant by having doubt. There are people who uninterruptedly
repeat the phrase, "Who is reciting the Buddha's name?" They would accumulate
more merit and virtue if they repeatedly recited Amitabha Buddha's name
instead. There are others who let their minds wander, thinking that is
the meaning of having doubt, and they end up more involved in illusory
thoughts. This is like trying to ascend but descending instead. Be aware
The doubt that is generated by a beginning practitioner tends to be
coarse, intermittent and irregular. This does not truly qualify as a state
of doubt. It can only be called thoughts. Gradually, after the wild thoughts
settle and one has more control, the process can be called can (pronounced
ts'an which means to investigate or look into). As one's cultivation gets
smoother, the doubt naturally arises without one's actively inducing it
to. At this point one is not aware of where one is sitting. One is not
aware of the existence of a body or mind or environment. Only the doubt
is there. This is a true state of doubt.
Realistically speaking, the initial stage cannot be considered cultivation.
One is merely engaging in illusory thoughts. Only when true doubt arises
by itself can it be called true cultivation. This moment is a crucial juncture,
and it is easy for the practitioner to deviate from the right path:
(1) At this moment it is clear and pure and there is an unlimited sense
of lightness and peace. However if one fails to fully maintain one's awareness
and illumination (awareness is wisdom, not delusion; illumination is samadhi,
not disorder), one will fall into a light state of mental dullness. If
there is an open-eyed person around, he will be able to tell right away
that the practitioner is in this mental state and hit him with the incense
stick, dispersing all clouds and fog. Many people become enlightened this
(2) At this moment it is clear and pure, empty and vacuous. If it isn't,
then the doubt is lost. Then it is "no content," meaning one is not making
an effort to practice anymore. This is what is meant by "the cliff with
dry wood" or "the rock soaking in cold water. " In this situation the practitioner
has to " bring up." "Bring up" means to develop awareness and illumination.
It is different from earlier times when the doubt was coarse. Now it has
to be extremely fine --- one thought, uninterrupted and extremely subtle.
With utter clarity, it is illuminating and quiescent, unmoving yet fully
aware. Like the smoke from a fire that is about to go out, it is a narrow
stream without interruption. When one's practice reaches this point, it
is necessary to have a diamond eye in the sense that one should not try
to "bring up" anymore. To "bring up" at this point would be like putting
a head on top of one's head.
Once a monk asked Ch'an master Zhaozhou, "What should one do when not
one thing comes?" Zhaozhou replied, "Put it down." The monk asked, "If
not one thing comes, what does one put down?" Zhaozhou replied, "If it
cannot be put down, take it up." This dialogue refers precisely to this
kind of situation. The true flavor of this state cannot be described. Like
someone drinking water, only he knows how cool or warm it is. If a person
reaches this state, he will naturally understand. If he is not at this
state, no explanation will be adequate. To a sword master you should offer
a sword; do not bother showing your poetry to someone who is not a poet.
5. Taking Care of hua tou and Turning Inward to Hear One's Self-nature:
Someone might ask, "How is Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara's method of turning
inward to hear self-nature considered investigating Ch'an?" I have previously
explained that taking care of hua to is being, moment after moment, with
only one thought, single-mindedly shining the light inward on "that which
is not born and not destroyed." Inward illumination is reflection. Self-nature
is that which is not born and not destroyed. When "hearing" and "illuminating"
follow sound and form in the worldly stream, hearing does not go beyond
sound and seeing does not go beyond form. However, when one turns inward
and contemplates self-nature against the worldly stream, and does not pursue
sound and form then he becomes pure and transparent. At that time "hearing"
and "illuminating" are not two different things.
Thus we should know that taking care of the hua to and turning inward
to hear self-nature does not mean using our eyes to see and our ears to
hear. If we use our ears to hear or our eyes to see, then we are chasing
sound and form. As a result we will be affected by them. This is called
submission to the worldly stream. If one practices with one thought only,
single-mindedly abiding in that which is not born and not destroyed, not
chasing after sound and form, with no wandering thoughts, then one is going
against the stream. This is also called taking care of the hua to or turning
inward to hear one's self-nature. This is not to say you should close your
eyes tightly or cover your ears. Just do not generate a mind of seeking
after sound and form.
6. Determined to Leave samsara and Generating a Persevering Mind:
In Ch'an training the most important thing is to have an earnestness
to leave birth and death and to generate a persevering mind. If there is
no earnestness to leave birth and death, then one cannot generate the "great
doubt" and practice will not be effective. If there is no perseverance
in one's mind, the result will be laziness, like a man who practices for
one day and rests for ten. The practice will be incomplete and when great
doubt arises, vexations will come to an end by themselves. When the time
comes, the melon will naturally depart from the vine.
I will tell you a story. During the Ching dynasty in the year of Geng
Ze (1900) when the eight world powers sent their armies to Peking, the
Emperor Guang Xu fled westward from Peking to Shanxi province. Everyday
he walked tens of miles. for several days he had no food to eat. On the
road, a peasant offered him sweet potato stems. after he ate them, he asked
the peasant what they were because they tasted so good. Think about the
emperor's usual awe-inspiring demeanor and his arrogance! How long do you
think he could continue to maintain his imperial attitude after so long
a journey on foot? do you think he had ever gone hungry? Do you think he
ever had to eat sweet potato stems? At that time he gave up all of his
airs. After all, he had walked quite a distance and had eaten stems to
keep from starving. Why was he able to put down everything at that time?
Because the allied armies wanted his life and his only thought was to save
himself. But when peace prevailed and he returned to Peking, once again
he became proud and arrogant. He didn't have to run anymore. He no longer
had longer had to eat any food that might displease him. Why was he unable
to put down everything at that time? Because the allied armies no longer
wanted his life. If the emperor always had an attitude of running for his
life and if he could turn such an attitude toward the path of practice,
there would be nothing he could not accomplish. It's a pity he did not
have a persevering mind. When favorable circumstances returned, so did
his former habits.
Fellow practitioners! Time is passing, never to return. It is constantly
looking for our lives. It is more frightening than the allied armies. Time
will never compromise or make peace with us. Let us generate a mind of
perseverance immediately in order to escape from birth and death! Master
Gaofeng (1238-1295) once said, "concerning the practice, one should act
like a stone dropping into the deepest part of the pool --- ten thousand
feet deep --- continuously and persistently dropping without interruption
toward the bottom. If one can practice like this without stopping, continuously
for seven days and still be unable to cut off one's wandering, illusory
thoughts and vexations, I, Gaofeng, will have my tongue pulled out for
cows to plow on forever. "He continued by saying, "When one practices Ch'an,
one should set out a certain time for success, like a man who has fallen
into a pit a thousand feet deep. All his tens of thousands of thoughts
are reduced to one --- escape from the pit. If one can really practice
from morning to dusk and from night to day without a second thought, and
if he does not attain complete enlightenment within three, five, or seven
days, I shall be committing a great lie for which I shall have my tongue
pulled out for cows to plow on forever." This old master had great compassion.
Knowing that we would probably be unable to generate such a persevering
mind, he made two great vows to guarantee our success.
to be continued
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