Ch'an Newsletter - No. 88, September 1991

This is Part Three of a translation of an article written by Master Hsu-yun.

The Essentials of Chan Practice
by Master Hsu-yun

7. Enlightenment and Practice 

The patriarch, Hanshan (1546-1623), once said, "There are practitioners who get enlightened first and then start their cultivation, and those who practice first and then get enlightened. However, there are two kinds of enlightenment: insight through reason and insight through experience. If a person realizes Mind by following the teachings of the Buddha and the patriarchs, it is considered insight through reason. One with such an experience will only have a conceptual understanding. In all circumstances he will still be powerless. The mind of the practitioner and the environment are separate and do not reach totality. Therefore, his experience is an obstruction. It is called simulated Prajna and is not real practice. 

"On the other hand, those who become enlightened through practice stick to their methods in a straightforward manner until they force themselves into a corner. suddenly their last conceptual thought disappears and they completely realize Mind. It is like seeing your father at a cross road there is no doubt. It is like drinking water: only the person drinking knows if it is warm or cold. There is no way to express it. This is real practice and enlightenment. Afterward, the practitioner will still have t deal with different mental states that arise in accordance with his experience. He will still have to get rid of strong karmic obstructions and wandering and emotional thoughts, leaving only pure Mind. This is enlightenment by experience. 

"concerning true enlightenment experiences, there are deep and shallow ones. If one puts effort in following the fundamental principle, destroys the nest of the eighth consciousness and overturns the dark caves of ignorance, then one head directly for enlightenment. There is no other way. Those who achieve this have extremely sharp karmic roots and experience deep enlightenment. 

"Those who practice gradually experience shallow enlightenment. The worst case is when someone attains little and is satisfied. One should not take illusions, like shadows created by light, for enlightenment. Why? Because they do not chop down the root of the eighth consciousness. The experiences these people have are manifestations of their own consciousness. Believing such an experience to be real is like mistaking a thief for your son. an ancient said, 'Because cultivators believe that the activities of their consciousness are real, they do not recognize what is real. This is the reason for their transmigration through innumerable kalpas of birth and death. Ignorant people take consciousness for their true selves. 'Therefore, you must pass through this gate. 

"On the other hand, there are those who experience sudden enlightenment and cultivate gradually. Although these people have experience deep enlightenment, they still have habitual tendencies that they cannot eliminate immediately. At this point , progress depends on circumstance. It all depends on the clarity of their practice in different situations. They have to use their enlightened principle to illuminate these situations. while passing through them they can check their minds. If they can melt away one percent of the external appearances, then they will have gained one percent of their Dharmakaya. By eliminating one percent of their wandering thoughts, one percent of their original wisdom will manifest. This is how one can strengthen one's experience." 

Listening to Hanshan's words, we can see that it is not important whether someone is enlightened or not. Those who understand enlightenment either through reason or experience have to continue their practice and follow it through. The difference is that those who are enlightened first and then cultivate are like old horses who are familiar with the road. They will not go the wrong way. It is much easier than cultivating first and then getting enlightened. 

Those who are enlightened are rooted and are not like those who understand enlightenment through reason. People with the latter understanding are shaky. Their experience is superficial. those who are enlightened through experience are more likely to derive benefit form their practice. Even at the age of eighty, the elder master Zhaozhou (778-897) still traveled. For forty years, the master used his mind without any wanderings; he only investigated the word "nothingness." He is a great model. Do you doubt that the master was enlightened? He truly reminds us not to be satisfied when we have little and not to praise ourselves highly. 

There are those who, after reading a few sutras or collections of talks of Ch'an masters, say things like, "The mind is the Buddha," and , "It is throughout the three periods and ten directions." Their words have nothing to do with the fundamental principle. They firmly believe that they are ancient Buddhas who have come back again. When they meet people, they praise themselves and say that they have attained complete enlightenment. Blind followers will even brag for them. It is like mistaking fish eyes for pearls. They do not know the difference between the real and the false. They mix things up. It not only makes people lose faith; it also gives rise to criticism. The reason the Ch'an sect is not flourishing is mainly because of the faults of these crazy people. I hope you can be diligent in your practice. Do not start something false. Do not speak about Ch'an with empty words. You must investigate seriously and attain real enlightenment. In the future you can propagate the Dharma and be a great master, like a dragon or an elephant in the animal kingdom, and help Ch'an Buddhism to flourish. 

8. Investigating Ch'an and Reciting Buddha's Name 

Those who recite Buddha's name usually criticize those who investigate Ch'an and those who investigate Ch'an usually slander those who recite Buddha's name. They seem to oppose each other like enemies. Some of them even wish that the others would die. This is a terrible thing to have happen in Buddhism. There is a saying which goes something like this: "A family in harmony will succeed in everything, whereas a family in decline is sure to argue. "With all of this fighting among brothers, it is no wonder that others laugh at us and look down at us. 

Investigating Ch'an, reciting Buddha's name, and other methods are all teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. The original Path is not separate from these methods. It is only because of the different karmic roots and mentalities of sentient beings that different methods are taught. It is like giving different antidotes for different poisons. Later on, patriarchs divided Buddha's teaching into different sects corresponding to different theories. Because the needs of people differ at different times, patriarchs propagated the Dharma in different ways. 

If an individual practices a method that fits his character, then regardless of which Dharma door he uses., he can penetrate the Path. Actually, there are no superior and inferior Dharma doors. Furthermore, Dharma doors are interconnected. all are perfect and without obstruction. For example, when one recites the Buddha's name to the point of one-mindedness, is this not investigating Ch'an? When one investigates Ch'an to the point of no separation between the investigator and that which is being investigated, is this not reciting the real characteristic of the Buddha? Ch'an is not other than the Ch'an within the Pure Land and Pure Land is not other than the Pure Land within Ch'an. Ch'an and pure Land are mutually enriching, and they function together. 

However, there are people who favor one view over another, and from these distinctions arise different ideas and opinions, which can unfortunately lead to praising oneself while slandering others. Such people are like fire and water. They cannot exist together. they have misunderstood the intention of the patriarchs who started the different sects. These people are unintentionally responsible for damaging, slandering and endangering Buddhism. Is this not sad and pitiable? 

I hope that all of us , no matter which dharma door we practice, understand the Buddha's principle of not discriminating and not arguing. We should have the mind of helping one another so that we may save this ship which floats amidst dangerous and violent waves. 

9. The Two Kinds of difficulty and Ease with Practitioners experience 

There are two kinds of difficulty and ease practitioners face on the Path, and which they experience depends primarily on the shallowness or depth of their practice. The first kind of difficulty and ease is associated with beginners, while the second kind corresponds to advanced practitioners. 

The symptoms of the common beginner's disease are: incapability of putting down wandering thoughts, habitual tendencies, ignorance, arrogance, jealousy, greed, anger, stupidity, desire, laziness, gluttony, and discrimination between self and other. All these fill big bellies. How can this be in accordance with the Path? 

There are other kinds of people who are born into wealthy and noble families. Never forgetting their habitual tendencies and bad influences, they cannot endure one bit of difficulty or withstand any hardship. How can these people practice the Path? They do not consider the status of our original teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha, when he decided to become a monk. 

There are other people who know a few words but do not understand that the ancients were actually tests to evaluate practitioners' levels of understanding. These people think they are smart. Every day they scrutinize the recorded sayings and writings, talk about Mind and Buddha, explain and interpret the teachings of the ancients. Talking about food but not eating it, counting the treasure of others and not owning it themselves, they think they are extraordinary people. They become incredibly arrogant. But when these people become seriously ill, they will cry out for help; and at the end of their lives they will panic and become bewildered. At that time, what they have learned and understood will be useless, and it will be too late to regret. 

There are other people who misunderstand the saying, " Originally we are Buddhas." These people say that the original self is complete and that there is no need for rectification. All day long they loaf about with nothing to do, following their emotions, wasting their time. These people praise themselves as eminent people and conform to causes and conditions. In the future these people will suffer greatly. 

Then there are people who have determined minds to practice, but who do not know where to begin their endeavors, or who are afraid of wandering thoughts. Unable to get rid of their thoughts, they abide inn vexation all day long, thinking about and mourning their heavy karmic obstructions. Because of this their determined minds backslide. 

There are also those people who want to battle till death with their wandering thoughts. Furiously, they tense up their fists and push out their chests and eyes. It seems like they are involved in something big. Ready to die in battle against their wandering thoughts, they do not realize that wandering thoughts cannot be defeated. These people end up vomiting blood or going insane. 

There are people who fear falling into emptiness. Little do they know that demons have arisen in their minds. They can neither empty their minds nor get enlightened. And there are those who strongly seek enlightenment, not understanding that seeking enlightenment and wanting to attain Buddhahood are all grave wandering thoughts. One cannot cook sand hoping to eat rice. They can seek until the year of the donkey and they still won't get enlightened. sometimes people become elated when occasionally they sit through a couple of peaceful sittings. These situations are like a blind turtle whose head happens to pass through a small hole in a piece of wood floating in the middle of the ocean. It is not the result of real practice. In their elation these people have served to add another obstruction. 

There are those who dwell in false purity during meditation and enjoy themselves. Since they cannot maintain a peaceful mind within activity , they avoid noisy places and spend their days soaking in stale water. There are numerous examples of this. for beginners, it is very difficult to find entrance to the Path. If there is illumination without awareness, then it's like sitting in stale water waiting to die. 

Even though this practice is hard, once you find entrance to the path, it becomes easier. What is the easiest way for beginners? There is nothing special other than being able to "put it down." put what down? Put down all vexations arising from ignorance. Fellow practitioners, once this body of ours stops breathing, it becomes a corpse. The main reason we cannot put it down is because we place too much importance on it. Because of this, we give rise to the idea of self and other, right and wrong, love and hate, gain and loss. If we can have a firm belief that this body of ours is like a corpse, not to cherish it or look upon it as being ourselves, then what is there that we cannot put down? we must learn to put it down anywhere, anytime, whether walking, standing, sitting or sleeping, whether in motion or still, whether resting or active. we have to hold onto the doubt of the hua tou internally, and externally, and externally ignore everything. Continuously keep this up, calmly and peacefully, without a moment of extraneous thought, like a long sword extending into the sky. If anything comes in contact with the sharp edge, it will be extinguished without a trace or sound. If one could do this, would he still be afraid of wandering thoughts? What could harm him? Who is it that would be distinguishing between movement and stillness? Who is it that would be attached to existence or emptiness? 

If there are fears of wandering thoughts, then you have already added another wandering thought. If you feel you are pure, then you are already defiled. If you are afraid of falling into emptiness, then you are already dwelling in existence. If you want to become a Buddha, then you have to know is the entrance to the Path. afterward, carrying water and gathering firewood are not separate from the wonderful Path. Hoeing and planting fields are all Ch'an opportunities (Ch'an ji). Practicing the Path is not limited to sitting cross-legged throughout the day. 

What difficulties are encountered by advanced practitioners? Although some have practiced until the emergence of genuine doubt and possess both awareness and illumination, they are still bound by birth and death. Those who have neither awareness nor illumination fall into false emptiness. To arrive at either of these situations is truly hard. After reaching this point , many people cannot detach themselves further. They stand at the top of a ten thousand foot pole unable to advance. Some people, having progressed to this stage and being skilled in practice, and having sidestepped situations they cannot solve, think that they have already eradicated ignorance. They believe that their practice has reached home. Actually, these people are living in the wave of ignorance and do not even know it. When these people encounter a situation that they cannot solve --- where they must be their own master --- they just give up. This is a pity. 

There are others who reach real doubt, gain a little wisdom from the experience of emptiness, and understand a few ancient gong ans; and then they give up the great doubt because they think they are completely enlightened. These people compose poems and gathas, act arrogantly and call themselves virtuous men of the Path. Not only do they fool themselves, they also mislead others. They are creating bad karma. In other cases there are those who mistake the words of Bodhidharma, "To isolate from external conditions, internally the mind becomes still, like a wall, and one can enter the Path, " or the Sixth Patriarch's, "Not thinking of good or evil, at this time what is your original face, venerable Ming?" They think that meditating by rotten wood or by large boulders is the ultimate principle. These people take the illusory city as their treasured palace. They take the temporally guest house as their home. This i s what the gong an of the old woman who burned down the hut to reprimand one such living corpse refers to. 

What is the easy way for these advanced practitioners? Do not be proud and do not quit in the middle of cultivation. In the midst of well-meshed continuous practice, you have to be even finer. While practicing in a cautious and attentive manner, you have to be more careful. When the time comes, the bottom of the barrel will naturally drop off. If you cannot do this, then find a virtuous teacher to pry off the nails of the barrel and pull out the joints. 

Master cold Mountain once chanted: "On the peak of the highest mountain, the four directions expand to infinity. Sitting in silence, no one knows. The solitary moon shines on the cold spring. Here inn the spring there is no moon. is high in the sky. Though I'm humming this song, in the song there is no Ch'an. "The first two lines of this song reveal that the appearance of real nature does not belong to anything. The whole world is filled with bright and pure light without any obstructions. The third line speaks of the real body of Suchness. Surely, ordinary people cannot know this. Even the Buddhas of the three periods do not know where I abide. Therefore, no one can know the path. The three lines beginning with, "The solitary moon shines on the cold spring," is an expedient example of the level of Master Cold Mountain's practice. The last two lines are mentioned because he is afraid that we will "mistake the finger for the moon." He especially warns us that words and language are not Ch'an. 

10. Conclusion: 

I have said too much and have interrupted your practice. It is like pulling vines. The more one pulls, the more they tangle together. whenever there are words, there is no real meaning. when the ancient virtuous masters guided their students, either they used sticks or shouted. There were not so many words. However, the present cannot be compared with the past. One has no choice but to point a finger at the moon. After all, which is the finger? Which is the moon? Investigate!

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