Ch'an Newsletter - No. 2 December 1979

Radio Interview of Chan Master Sheng-yen with Lee Hixon

The cup fell to the ground
The sound was perfectly clear

Emptiness was smashed to pieces
The mad mind abruptly came to a halt.


Burning the hand, the cup was smashed to pieces
When the home is destroyed and the family all dead
It is hard to say anything.

When spring arrives, flowers blossom, the scent pervading everywhere
Mountains, rivers and the great Earth are all the Tathagata

--Master Hsu Yun

On December 16, Master Sheng-Yen along with two of his students (Marina Heau and Dan Stevenson), was a guest on WBAI radio's 'In the Spirit' program with Lex Hixon. During that interview, Shih-fu spoke about the kind of help he had received from both his Grand Master, T'ai Hsu and his Great Grand Master, Hsu Yun. First-hand accounts of their enlightenment experiences, including the above two poems, were read and discussed. Shih-fu also commented on the various levels of experience in meditation and about his relationship with his own students.

Because of the interested response from many of the listeners following the broadcast, we have decided to include portions of that interview in this publication, especially for those who may not have had the opportunity to listen in on that Sunday afternoon.

Shih-fu : Inevitably there are many different levels of meditation experience and the depth of an experience can be judged by the person's feelings of the experience. If the experience is shallow, then the person would still feel the existence of the external world and the internal world and even the distance between the two. A deeper experience would be when the distance between the two actually disappears. And in an even deeper experience, not only does the distance itself disappear, but the whole thing completely disappears. And yet everything is still very clear.

Lex : Shih-fu, when you saw these two people (Dan and Marina) practicing, could you tell that they were going to approach an experience like this and were you able to help them by pushing them a little bit?

Shih-fu : Usually I can know if someone is about to have an experience. I am not one with super powers, but very often I will have a natural response so that I realize what will occur with certain students and am able to use appropriate methods to help them along.

Lex : Because, as you said earlier, Shih-fu, the sense of outside and inside disappears, you must feel that you are not outside your students and whatever they are experiencing is just as intimate to you as what you are experiencing.

Shih-fu : That's right. The students are just the Shih-fu himself.

Lex : We are going to be looking at two enlightenment experiences of a very high order. The first one that we'll read is that of Shih-fu's Grand Master, his Grandfather in the Dharma, and the second one will be of his Great Grandfather in the Dharma, his Grand Master's Master. These are first-person accounts from great Chinese Masters of our times essentially. We are always reading of the old Zen Patriarchs of hundreds and even thousands of years ago, but these are people who are completely comparable to the original Patriarchs. Shih-fu, let's read your Grand Master first. This was his first enlightenment experience, while reading the Sutra in 1908, when he was 19 years old. And then he had a second or a deepening of his experience when he was 28 years old, in the winter of 1916 --

    'I had been reading the Parinirvana Sutra for more than a month and was just about finished with it. During this time my body and mind had gradually become concentrated, stable, at peace. One day while reading the Sutra, suddenly my body, mind and world disappeared. I entered into a condition where nothing existed. An extremely bright and pure light appeared which extended without limit. Within this limitless, bright and pure light there was clearly manifested innumerable, incalculable transparent worlds. All this existed within the great emptiness. I sat like this for several hours, which seemed to pass in an instant. After this experience, for many days following, my body and mind were still extremely happy, light, pure and peaceful.'

    'At that time I was sitting in meditation every night and the previous enlightenment experience which I had had while reading the Sutra regularly reoccurred. However, this time I applied the method of viewing the experience itself as empty. The method gradually took effect and became uninterrupted. One night, as I heard the sound of the Ch'ien Monastery evening bell, my mind suddenly disappeared. When my awareness returned, there was nothing but limitless, indescribable sound and light. From a condition where there was nothing, no external, no internal, no subjectivity, no objectivity, gradually subjectivity, objectivity, inner and outer, near and far, and the longness and shortness of time all reappeared, and I returned to my original condition of sitting in the meditation hall. A whole long night had passed from the time my mind had disappeared till my awareness returned. It was not until I heard the sound of the morning bell that I regained awareness.... From this time onward, my mind was firmly established in an extremely pure emptiness and was filled with a very bright and clear awareness. This was completely different from my previous experience in which I had merely seen many phenomena within the emptiness and bright light.'

Lex : Each teacher, each lineage has a kind of specialty you might say. What, would you say, was the special thing that he gave to your teacher and to you?

Shih-fu : The important guideline that he had given to my Master was that of Buddhist theories. At that time the methods of practice were actually incorporated in Buddhist theories, so he did not teach any specific way of meditation but rather the conception of Buddhism and the direction of Buddhism. I have been significantly influenced by this Master's ideas.

Lex : That's why he had his first enlightenment experience while reading the Sutra. He must have felt that actually reading the Sutra itself had some sort of power.

Shih-fu : Enlightenment does not come necessarily from meditation. This Master became a monk very early in life, so at the time he was reading this Sutra, he had also been meditating everyday. Much time was spent in meditation. In fact, for many of the great Ch'an Masters that we know, in most cases their enlightenment did not come directly during meditation, but rather, building on the foundation of meditation, they came into contact with something, some sound, or they might have been reading something, and suddenly became enlightened.

Lex : One of the backgrounds of Master Sheng-Yen is that you went to Japan and took a doctorate degree, and therefore you qualify as a fine scholar as well as a meditation master. I think it is an important combination because today many people think that Zen can just do away with all the teachings and the Sutras and just go straight to the direct experience. But it seems to me that this would be making it more narrow, and this particular Master emphasized the value of Buddhist doctrine.

Shih-fu : From my point of view, the doctorate degree was not very important or useful to me. In fact, I acquired the doctorate degree in Japan in a relatively short time. So my emphasis is on practice and not on scholarly work. However, where we look into historical figures, most of the great Masters and Patriarchs had very deep foundations in the theoretical works as well. A doctorate degree is not useful to me. However it is useful for helping me to spread the Dharma and Ch'an practice.

Lex : Now we will go to Master Sheng-Yen's Great Grandfather in the Dharma. This was his enlightenment experience that happened when he was 56 years old, in 1895. And again, I remind you of a very important cultural point, that there are Zen masters in China. There is an unbroken transmission there. It is the country where Ch'an, or Zen, really flourished and began and still has an unbroken transmission. And Shih-fu, Master Sheng-Yen, is a living embodiment of that tradition.

    'After I had been meditating for more than twenty days all my thoughts disappeared. I was working intensely moment to moment, day and night without interruption. When walking I moved like the wind. One evening when the bell was rung to signal the beginning of the sleep period, I opened my eyes and looked around. Suddenly I saw a great light as if it were broad daylight. I could clearly see both the inside and outside of my body. I saw a monk urinating on the other side of the wall and another monk relieving himself in the outhouse. A long distance off I could clearly see a boat moving on a river, as well as the trees along the banks. Then suddenly I heard the sound of the morning boards. A whole night had passed. The next day I asked the two monks if they had really been where I saw them the night before. They answered 'yes'. After several more weeks had passed, one evening during the meditation break a monk was pouring hot water into my cup. The water spilt and burned my hand, causing the cup to fall and break. As soon as I heard the smashing sound, I became enlightened. I felt that in this life I was extremely lucky. It was like awakening from a dream.'

Lex : Master Sheng-yen, you told us a little about your Grandfather in the Dharma and the special gift that he gave you. Now this Great Grandfather in the Dharma you mention came from a different lineage; what would you say the special gift of this Great Grandfather was?

Shih-fu : I have never met this Master, but my Master in this lineage had a very deep relationship with him. The relationship that I had with my Master was actually very interesting because during my practice I had a lot of experiences but couldn't explain them well and just couldn't be certain about them. And so I met this Master. We just stayed together for a few evenings. One evening I asked him a few questions and he gave me very short answers. With just a few short sentences, he explained away everything, all the doubts that I had had in my mind. With my so-called Great Grandfather in the Dharma, the relationship was indirect. But because of what I had received from this Master, I was very grateful to him. The most important thing that I had received from my Master were two Chinese characters which mean put down. At that point I had many questions to ask him, but he simply told me to put down. Right away I felt the problems disappear, although daily life would still continue as usual. My whole personality changed just after these two words. This experience has never before been told to anyone.

Lex : Shih-fu, anyone else could say those same two characters, or those same English words, put down. What is the difference when an enlightened Master says that? What gives the power to that?

Shih-fu : First, I had absolute faith in the Master, and at that point I had a lot of things in my mind that I could not put down. And, of course, the Master and the disciple must have a good karmic connection. At that moment, the Master recognized that my time had come, so he just told me to put down. In fact, if those words had been said at any other time, it would not have been as powerful. This is Ch'an. There must be a right opportunity and karma, and the minds of the Master and disciple must unite.

Lex : As Master Sheng-yen said earlier, he knew when Dan and Marina were about to have those experiences, and actually he said that they were none other than his own. That is a very deep thing that he told us. Is it true that the Zen Master experiences all experiences as his own somehow?

Shih-fu : Ch'an Masters have various levels of attainment; some have reached a very high level, some have just barely passed the first barrier. Ch'an Masters are not necessarily completely enlightened people, so it cannot be said that they can experience everything. However, when a Ch'an Master has disciples who are making progress, then inevitably the Master will also be making progress and vice-versa. When a Master himself is practicing hard and making progress, there is also a better chance for him to bring his disciples forward.

Lex : So there's no end to this process of deepening?

Shih-fu : For me this is probably true. But ultimately if there is an end, that end point is also the state where there is no end.

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