Ch'an Newsletter - No. 41 November 1984

Ch'an Sickness (I)
(Lecture delivered Sunday, June 24, 1984)

This talk continues the discussion begun two weeks ago concerning the four kinds of erroneous attachments to the four characteristics: self, others, sentient beings, and life. At that time, I gave a general explanation of the four characteristics. I said that all four characteristics result from attachment to the sense of self. Last week, I examined these characteristics from the perspective of the practitioner. We understood how he experienced them throughout the various stages of his practice. Today we will continue the discussion, and attempt to understand the problems that can occur when a practitioner is attached to the four characteristics. Solutions to each of these problems will also be discussed.

This discussion will be divided into three sections. In the first, we shall examine how the attachment to the sense of individuality, which results from the four misconceptions, is manifested in the practitioner's behavior. In the second, we will present a description of the experienced practitioner and the conduct which will best aid his progress. And in the third section, we will provide a general description of the appropriate attitude of the practitioner throughout the course of his practice.

People who have achieved results from practice, and who have practiced for many years, may feel that they have reached the stage of pure wisdom, where all attachment to self is terminated, and Nirvana is entered. Actually, anyone who thinks that he has become enlightened really has not. Such a person still possesses a sense of self (because of the very fact they he thinks that there is a self to be enlightened).

Enlightenment is neither an object nor a feeling nor an environment to be entered. Were enlightenment any of these, it would be limited and thus illusory. So long, then, as enlightenment is seen as an objective, and so long as there is a self to benefit from enlightenment, wisdom is still far away.

After hearing what I have just said, you may think that you understand. But it is difficult for a beginner to appreciate the joy which results from these experiences. Indeed, suppose that after much practice you experience the feeling of disappearance of the self into Nirvana. At this time tremendous bliss would well up in you, and you might exclaim, "Truly, my self has disappeared completely. I have entered Nirvana." Have you really entered Nirvana, though? Since there is still a sense of self to enter Nirvana, the final achievement is still unrealized. But so powerful is this experience that it is likely to mislead even a very experienced practitioner.

What I have just discussed provides a first example of the misconceptions that result from erroneous attachment to self. Let us now examine a second example. Suppose through practice someone reaches the stage where self-centeredness ends and the method of practice dissolves. He will feel entirely relaxed and free, unified with the universe, yet unconcerned with its relation to him -- because his sense of self is gone. His state is not one of exultation, but rather of perfect ease; he will not jump with delight, and shout that he has entered Nirvana. But the self still exists in this case, no matter what the practitioner may feel he has experienced.

Once a practitioner whose experience is identical to that described above comes down from this state, he may assert that he understands Nirvana, that he has seen the Dharma body of the Buddha, and that he has attained final wisdom. If you, who have not yet attained the meditative skill of this person, attempt to contradict him, and say, "You are only talking nonsense, for you are playing games with ghosts!", he may well overcome you in argument. Such a practitioner is generally very attached to his achievement. He will be frustrated when you do not believe what he says. He may respond as follows: "You have never had my experiences, so you don't know what you are talking about." To make matters worse, there may be another person close by who is willing to affirm what this practitioner claims, perhaps because this other person feels that his own descriptions of Nirvana and his other achievements may accord perfectly with descriptions given by the sutras. This by-stander may say that, because he himself has known the experiences described by the other practitioner, he is in a position to affirm their validity. This will make the first practitioner very happy. He will think that the one who supports what he says is his true Dharma friend.

Entering Nirvana is said to result in liberation. What kind of liberation, then, does this practitioner possess, who responds to praise with delight and to insult with frustration? It would seem that his Nirvana is faulty. Perhaps our practitioner might respond to this conclusion as follows: "I may respond to praise and criticism in different ways, but I do not do so to please myself. Since I am quite free from the self, I really do not care at all. But in order to uphold the dignity of the Buddhadharma, I censure those who conflict with the Dharma and praise those who are in accord with it." What can we say to this? It would be impossible to judge such a person's achievement. What is important is his own enlightenment experience. If as a result of this experience he feels, "Wow, I have entered Nirvana and have lost my self! I have tremendous wisdom," then he has not entered Nirvana. Nirvana is entered only if both Nirvana and samsara (as well as time) disappear and become like a dream; it is entered only if there is no more feeling of happiness and sorrow, and if the mind is quite stable and tranquil.

It may seem strange that even enlightenment is said to be a dream. It may be easier to understand what samsara is. But if both are said to be equally illusory, then the practitioner is engaging in the dispiriting process of fighting to leave one dream only to enter another. Actually, enlightenment itself is not a dream, but the concept of enlightenment as well as its attainment is truly a dream. Thus, sentient beings in samsara are living in a dream with a concept of enlightenment that is really nothing more than an object of grasping. Once they actually reach enlightenment, enlightenment is no longer a dream. Indeed, enlightenment ceases to exist. When genuine enlightenment is entered, it disappears.

A practitioner is comparable to someone trying to climb a mountain made of glass. The mountain is very steep and slippery. The mountaineer is barefooted, and to make matters worse, the mountain is covered with oil. Every time he makes an effort to climb, he slips. With persistence, however, he tries again and again to make progress up the mountain until, utterly exhausted, he collapses into a deep sleep. When he awakens, the mountaineer finds the mountain completely gone. He realizes that all his effort was but a dream, and that there is no need to climb; there is no progress to make. In the dream, however, the mountain did exist, and if he had not attempted the impossible in his dream -- the ideal of climbing the mountain -- he would not have been able to wake from his dream. Thus, in the practice of Buddhadharma it is necessary to try to leave samsara and achieve Nirvana (although neither can be accomplished since both are quite illusory). If in the course of your practice you experience such states of self-enlightenment, then know that you are still only dreaming.

So far we have treated those who feel they have achieved enlightenment in relation to an existing self. In our third example, we will examine the equally false, reverse perspective. In this case, the practitioner asserts that he is indifferent to praise and blame, to the affairs of the world and even to his own practice because, he has understood that there is neither Nirvana nor a self to enter Nirvana, and that equally there is no world other than a meaningless illusion. This attitude is quite erroneous and is perhaps more dangerous for the practitioner than either of the two previous examples of misconceptions. In these latter two, the practitioner may attain the various heavenly states after death; states attainable by dhyana. But this third practitioner is tempted by his misconceptions to stop practicing. Were he to persevere in practice, he would be in the fortunate position to enter the formless heavens. But if he were to cease practicing because he felt that nothing mattered since all is illusion, he would fall into the animal realms after death. Neither the heaven nor the human realms would be open to him. He would fall because of ignorance.

These three examples of erroneous conceptions should not be viewed as extraordinary. (It is very easy for a practitioner who works diligently to experience the states described above.) Thus, you can understand the great importance of a master who can guide his students away from these pitfalls. Without such a guide, though convinced he is practicing Buddhadharma, the practitioner is likely to be traveling the outer paths. 

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