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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.
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?
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