Ch'an Newsletter - No. 104, November 1994

The History of  Ch'an
Lecture given by Master Sheng-yen at Seton Hall on 11/17/89
edited by Virginia Tan and Harry Miller

The origins of Ch'an tradition are obscure. Indian history is imprecise and few records remain. Bodhidharma's journey to China occurred more than a thousand years after Sakyamuni's death, and there are many gaps in our knowledge of the interim period.

There are, however, stories and legends that describe the origins of Ch'an. Most famous is the account of the transmission of the Dharma to Mahakashyapa, one of the Buddha's chief disciples, who became the first patriarch in the Ch'an lineage. There is, however, no historical evidence to substantiate this account.

The story is this: one day during a sermon at Vulture Peak, Sakyamuni Buddha held a flower in his hand in front of the assembly and did not speak. No one seemed to know what this gesture meant, but Mahakashyapa smiled. The Buddha said, "Kashyapa knows what I am going to say." This event marks the beginning of the Ch'an lineage and the master to disciple transmission that continues to this day. This story was unknown to Buddhist history until the tenth century Sung Dynasty. But we should not doubt the entire lineage of the Ch'an tradition just because of one probably apocryphal story.

It is more important to investigate Ch'an methods themselves than to become caught up in historical debate. These methods, still practiced today, are illustrated by the stories of enlightenment of two of Sakyamuni Buddha's disciples, one very bright and the other quite dull.

The first disciple, Ananda, had a powerful mind and a fabulous memory. However, he never attained enlightenment during Sakyamuni's lifetime. Ananda thought that Buddha would reward his intelligence with enlightenment. It never happened. After Buddha entered Nirvana, Ananda hoped Mahakashyapa would help him.

After Buddha's death, Mahakashyapa tried to gather 500 enlightened disciples together in order to collect and record the Buddha's teachings. He could only find 499. Some suggested that he invite Ananda, but Mahakashyapa said that Ananda was not an Arhat (an enlightened being), and therefore was unqualified for the assembly. He said that he would rather not have the gathering at all than to have Ananda attend.

But Ananda persisted. Three times he was turned away by Mahakashyapa. Ananda said, "Buddha has entered Nirvana. Now only you can help me reach enlightenment." Mahakashyapa said, "I'm very busy. I cannot be of help. Only you can help yourself." At last, Ananda realized that he had to rely on his own efforts if he wished to attain enlightenment. He went off to a solitary and secluded place. As he was about to sit down, he attained enlightenment! Why? He had finally discarded all his attachments when he relied entirely on himself.

Another story describes the dimwitted disciple named "Small Path," or "Small Road." He was the most stupid of Buddha's disciples. All, except "Small Path," could remember Buddha's teachings. If he tried to remember the first word of a sutra, he forgot the second and vice versa. Buddha gave him the job of cleaning the other disciples' shoes, since he didn't seem fit to do anything else.

After he had cleaned shoes for a very long time, "Small Path" asked, "All the shoes are clean, but is my mind as clean?" At that moment everything dropped from his mind. He was elated. He went to see the Buddha, who was very pleased with his accomplishment. Buddha told him that he had become an Arhat.

These are recorded as true stories in the early texts. The first shows that in practice, knowledge and intelligence are not necessarily guarantees of enlightenment. The second story shows that even a dimwit can attain enlightenment. This does not mean that Ch'an encourages stupidity, or disallows enlightenment to intelligent people. Sakyamuni Buddha, Mahakashyapa, and Sariputra were people of great learning. Ch'an has to do with whether the mind is filled with attachments or not. Enlightenment can only be reached when one's mind is rid of attachments.

It is said that there were twenty-eight generations of transmissions from Mahakashyapa to Bodhidharma, and that in each case only the patriarch was involved. However, it is unlikely that the patriarchs alone received transmission. In China it is also believed that from Bodhidharma to the sixth patriarch Hui-neng, only the patriarchs received transmission. We know, however, that Bodhidharma had two or three disciples, and so did the third and fourth patriarchs. The belief in single-person transmission stems from the fact that we only recognize the patriarch as having received the direct transmission.

I am the sixty-second generation in the lineage of Ch'an, directly transmitted, master to disciple, from the sixth patriarch Hui-neng and in the Lin-chi tradition. All the masters before me in this lineage had more than one disciple, but when you trace back your lineage, you disregard other disciples.

The sixth patriarch Hui-neng had many disciples who established many branches and generations. Some branches ceased to exist due to a lack of disciples, but some may still survive today. Therefore, it's unlikely, from India to China, that there was only single transmission for twenty-eight generations.

We have briefly covered the history and transmission of Ch'an. Let's discuss the character, or style, of Ch'an. The fifth patriarch Heng-jen (d. 674) had two prominent disciples -- Shen-hsiu and Hui-neng. The Shen-hsiu style was based on step-by-step practice. Hui-neng, however, emphasized the practice of no practice. Both used the mirror to illustrate their styles.

Shen-hsiu used this analogy: cultivation is like polishing a mirror. Examine and rectify your behavior until the self-nature/mirror is clean. This process continues until purity of mind is achieved.

Hui-neng also used the mirror analogy. According to him, there was no mirror -- and therefore nothing to dust or polish. This means that original self-nature is clean and pure. There is no need to take anything away, no need to add anything. A Ch'an saying illustrates: "As long as there is nothing in your mind, any direction -- north, east, south or west -- is fine."

Each lineage has its own rules, style and method of practice, but the goal is the same: free the mind, and no problems exist. In Ch'an practice there are no definitive standards. As long as your mind is at peace, you are fine.

Proper understanding is essential to Ch'an practice. Without it, even practice will not achieve results. To review: the most prominent styles are that of Bodhidharma, characterized by practice, and that of Hui-neng, characterized by no practice. Bodhidharma's method can be divided into the entrance through principle -- sudden enlightenment, and the entrance through practice -- gradual cultivation.

The entrance through practice involves four components:

  1. Accept Karmic retribution: the basic Buddhist doctrine of cause and effect. Difficulties in this life are the result of past deeds. The natural consequences of causes we have effected in past lives should cause no sadness or anger.
  2. Accord with conditions: Good fortune and pleasant circumstances are the results of meritorious deeds in past lives. They depend on cause and conditions, and when the conditions dissipate the favorable events will also end. Therefore do not be overly happy or proud.
  3. Practice without seeking: Seeking results in sufferings. Do not seek and you will depart from self-centeredness and gain complete freedom of mind.
  4. Practice in accord with Dharma: Realize that all phenomena and appearances are inherently empty and undefiled. This practice includes the previous three. It is the practice of "direct contemplation" of emptiness. The practitioner recognizes only the emptiness of dharmas (phenomena ) and not their appearances."

Enlightenment is the motivation. Before you begin practice, you must have motivation. But once you start practice, you must drop your intention to seek enlightenment. Motivation is a form of self-attachment, and if you don't drop that, you will never attain enlightenment.

Next we will talk about the sixth patriarch Hui-neng's practice of no stage, or stageless practice. The Platform Sutra emphasizes practice in which, regardless of time and place, your mind makes no distinction between virtue and evil, good and bad, right and wrong. Your mind is detached from such discriminating thoughts. This in itself is practice.

The mind usually referred to in the Platform Sutra is pure mind, no thought, which is the equivalent of wisdom, or enlightenment. The Platform Sutra begins with no thought and the result is no form. "No thought" is a special term in Buddhism meaning that one does not attach to thoughts or abide in thoughts. Thoughts and memories occur, but one does not give rise to other thoughts attached to them. No thought is the equivalent of no form -- including all existence, physical, mental or material that exists within time and space. No form is one and the same with pure mind and thought, the same as wisdom and enlightenment. Without using any method at all, enlightenment can be attained.

Next let's discuss the style of Ch'an practice that gradually lessens vexations and increases wisdom. This practice can be divided into two categories: daily practice and periodic practice.

Daily practice involves regular daily meditation. You meditate for a certain period each day. When not practicing, you deal with people and situations in daily life with a concentrated mind. I often tell my students to pay attention wherever they are and focus on whatever they are doing at the moment. Live in the present. This too is daily practice.

However, daily practice is not enough. You need periodic, concentrated practice as well. Every week, month or year you should set aside time to practice alone, whether it is a day or two, seven days or even a month. Use that block of time to concentrate on nothing but practice.

The second kind of periodic practice is group practice. The benefit of group practice is that practitioners help each other. It is also safer to practice within the group. This concentrated periodic practice is useful. However, without daily practice vexation and suffering tends to increase. Your mind will not be peaceful. By the same token, if you practice daily without periodic, intensive practice, your practice may be weak.

Once I asked a high-ranking Catholic priest how he managed to maintain presence of his mind while running around to different places and conducting numerous activities without being distracted or tempted to go back to secular life, marry and raise a family. He replied that priests practice spiritual cultivation two to four hours daily. Without this daily practice, it would be difficult for him to remain a priest.

This is why Ch'an emphasizes daily practice. Meditation alone is not enough. You must conduct your daily activities with the same presence of mind that you bring to mediation.

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