Newsletter - No. 120, December 1996
Chinese Buddhism and the Ch'an Tradition
A lecture delivered by Master Sheng-yen at the University of Bristol, England, June 10, 1995, and edited by Dr. K.E. Robinson, Bristol Ch'an Group, Linda Peer and Harry Miller.
Because there are a number of people here today who have just spent a week with me on retreat in Wales, I will talk about Ch'an practice as well as the history and beliefs of Ch'an.
Buddhism was transmitted to China mainly during the early and middle periods of its growth in India (about 500 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.). Developments in Buddhism during the late period in India were transmitted principally to Tibet. As Buddhism developed in China, Chinese culture changed it. In India there was great emphasis on logic and philosophical reasoning, but less interest in history. Chinese Buddhism also emphasized philosophical reasoning, but was more concerned with the totality of things, and less with the structured and logical development of ideas.
When Buddhism arrived in China, Confucianism and Taoism already existed, but had few structured philosophical discourses. If we look at their literature we see that there were not many structured philosophical discourses. Whereas Indian literature included many enormously long (poetic) works, the poems of ancient China rarely exceeded a few thousand words. The development of fiction, and of the novel, came much later in China, during the Ming Period, and was very much influenced by the development of Buddhism. In ancient China there was an emphasis on simplicity, and a holistic rather than a logical and analytical approach to philosophy, in both literature and religion.
Most of the great works of Buddhism, the sutras and the sastras, the structured discussions, were translated into Chinese, but most Chinese do not care much for this kind of writing, and the Buddhist sects based on them were not popular. However, there were a small number of Chinese Buddhists who devoted themselves to the study of these Indian scriptures from the Tripitaka. They then restructured and reorganized them, and presented the scriptures in different ways. In so doing, they brought into being the ten different Buddhist sects in China, of which eight were Mahayana and two Hinayana. Within Indian Mahayana Buddhism there were three major traditions. Two of these, Madhyamaka and Yogacara, had a strong intellectual and philosophical flavor. The third tradition, Tathagatagarbha, did not become a philosophical school. Four of the eight Chinese Mahayana sects had a strong Indian flavour. Only two of those, the San-lun-tsung, which was based on Madhyamaka, and Wei-shih-tsung, based on Yogacara, became popular, and only for short periods of time. Similarly, the two Chinese Hinayana sects derived from the Abhidharma sastra received little attention.
In China the third Indian tradition, Tathagatagarbha, became concerned with faith and with the whole, the totality, rather than with the dialectic, logical and structured approach to ideas. This appealed to the Chinese, and all four of the major Chinese sects are part of the Tathagatagarbha system. Chinese Buddhism, then, is part of the Tathagatagarbha tradition.
Of these sects, two emphasized theory and two were more concerned with practice. Although they developed in China and their ideas were therefore structured and presented in a Chinese manner, they were nonetheless based on the Indian tradition and do not contradict basic Indian Buddhism. The two sects most concerned with theory were T'ien-tai and Hua-yen, the first being the earlier of the two. The two primarily concerned with practice were Pure Land and Ch'an. These four sects make up most of Chinese Buddhism.
In India there were many sutras and discourses in the Tathagatagarbha tradition, but, when the teaching was transmitted to China, additional sutras and discourses appeared which have no apparent counterparts in India. The Surangama Sutra, the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment and the discourse of the Awakening of Mahayana Faith are perhaps the most important of these. These are all very popular with the Chinese. However, modern scholars cannot locate Sanskrit
originals, identify the authors, or even be sure when these works were written. They believe that the authors were early Chinese Buddhists, but they cannot identify Chinese masters whose views were advanced enough and sufficiently similar to those expounded in these three works to be likely authors.
The concept of Tathagatagarbha is a good example of the richness and complexity of the philosophies expounded in the scholarly works of the T'ien-tai and Hua-yen sects. On the one hand, Tathagatagarbha proposes that there are levels of Buddhism. There is basic Buddhism for ordinary people and higher levels (for people who have developed more wisdom and merit). On the other hand, not only does the highest level incorporate all other levels, but by the very totality of its embrace the highest level elevates even the most basic Buddhism to the highest level. This is called the Complete Teaching.
The Nirvana Sutra says that every sentient being can become a Buddha and this concept, that every sentient being has Buddha-nature, is shared by all Chinese Buddhist sects. From the point of view of a Buddha, every sentient being has always been a Buddha, so, on the one hand, we speak of different levels -- sentient beings here, and Buddhas on a higher level - but, from the point of view of the Buddhas, all sentient beings are Buddhas.
The term Tathagatagarbha is usually translated as Buddha (tathagata) storehouse or embryo (garbha). It is where the wisdom, merit and virtue of the Buddha are stored in every sentient being, much as gold is present in gold ore, although surrounded by earth and dust. The expert recognizes the gold at once, much as a Buddha sees the Buddha-nature within every sentient being directly, even though it may remain hidden from the mind of the sentient being him- or herself. In Ch'an, when we speak of enlightenment we mean to be enlightened to Tathagatagarbha: to discover the wisdom, merit and virtue, which is in every sentient being. According to the Tathagatagarbha system, all of you, whether you believe it or not, possess Buddha-nature. Do you believe that? It is because of the Buddha-nature within each of you that you have been so patient and listened to my talk up to this point.
What was the source of Ch'an? The Ch'an school as we know it could not be found at all in India, and even in China it was the last of the eight Chinese Mahayana Buddhist sects to appear. According to the Ch'an lore, the monk Bodhidharma brought Ch'an from India to China (in about 500 C.E.). He is considered the first Chinese Ch'an patriarch and the twenty-eighth Indian Ch'an patriarch. Mahakasyapa, who received transmission of the Dharma from the Buddha, is believed to be the first Ch'an patriarch in India, the second was Ananda, and so on down to Bodhidharma. However, as I said earlier, the Indian people of ancient times were not particularly concerned with recording an accurate history, and there is no record from India of some of these patriarchs. The belief in the existence of Ch'an in India does not seem to be founded on historical fact, and the literal truth of the Ch'an transmission lineage is questionable.
This morning in Wales, at the conclusion of a Ch'an seven-day retreat, I mentioned that I had the Dharma transmission myself and that this came originally from Sakyamuni Buddha. Besides that, I have now transmitted the Dharma to England. However, I also say that the historical truth of the transmission in India is questionable. Does this mean that my own transmission is questionable? What do you think? There may be inaccuracies in the history, but there need be no doubt about the reality of the transmission. I know very well that I had a Shih-fu, and that my Shih-fu likewise had a Shih-fu. From Sakyamuni Buddha on, throughout the history of Buddhism in India, great emphasis was placed on the transmission between a Master and a disciple. It is the same in Tibetan Buddhism, and for all Buddhists. The names of the people in the line of transmission may not be correct, and the history of the lineage may also be confused by the appearance of monks with the same name at different times and in different places. I do not know the name of the grandfather of my grandfather, but I would never doubt that my grandfather had a grandfather. From an academic point of view there may be errors in the record of the names, but from a practical point of view I have absolute faith in the reality of the transmission.
Ch'an is not precisely the Buddhism brought by Bodhidharma from India, but Bodhidharma brought certain insights to China, and the Ch'an tradition is related to these. Actually, in India the kind of Buddhism Bodhidharma practiced was called by the Sanskrit term, dhyana. Dhyana had a very specific meaning in the Indian language. Dhyana Buddhist practice was a gradual process, involving eight levels of dhyana or samadhi and a ninth level, liberation.
In China this system was reorganized or synthesized by the T'ien-tai sect. The T'ien-tai school adopted the Indian dhyana practices and the system of different levels. They adopted the Indian practices of
samatha (the stilling of the mind), and vipassana (contemplation) and the understanding that wisdom developed through different levels. However, the T'ien-t'ai sect added that when eventually the highest level -- samatha-vipassana -- was reached, it was complete and instantaneous. This idea was not found in India.
The other Chinese Tathagatagarbha school concerned with theory, the Hua-yen school, dropped all of the lower levels and retained only the highest. The Hua-yen school eventually merged with, or rather faded into, the Ch'an school. The essential ideas of the Hua-yen school can be summarized in four famous lines:
Unobstructed with respect to principle.
Unobstructed with respect to phenomena.
Unobstructed interrelation of principle and phenomena.
Unobstructed interrelation of each and every phenomenon.
Although the fourth kind of "unobstructed" represents the highest level, the first three kinds are more difficult to explain and understand, so I will leave that to the professors. The fourth "unobstructed" is easy to understand. It is the perspective of the Complete Teaching, where everything is embraced and incorporated. From this highest point, all phenomena in the (non-sentient) universe possess Dharma-nature, which pervades everywhere, and all (sentient) phenomena, or living beings, possess Buddha-nature, which also pervades everywhere. Dharma-nature can be understood as the Dharma-body of the Buddha, which pervades everywhere because it is also the nature of emptiness. In sentient beings, who are capable of attaining enlightenment, it is called Buddha-nature, whereas for non-sentient phenomena, upon which sentient beings rely, it is called Dharma-nature.
The highest teaching views everything in this world as complete, with nothing lacking. This is a basic view of Ch'an. The completely enlightened view the world like this and are free from all vexations. This is the furthest point of the development of Tathagatagarbha philosophy, and it was the Hua-yen school which developed it to this point. The Ch'an sect adopted this idea. However, the Hua-yen school was theoretical and the Ch'an school practical. The Chinese preferred the practice to the conceptualization, and so the Ch'an school was more popular.
We cannot be so simplistic as to say that the Ch'an school came from the Hua-yen school. From the time of Bodhidharma through the next five generations of Ch'an patriarchs, the Masters emphasized sitting meditation, as did Indian Dhyana Buddhism. But by the time of the sixth patriarch, Hui-neng, and in the next generation, we read many stories of practitioners who did not practice sitting meditation. Even in the case of Bodhidharma, who did practice sitting meditation, we do not read that his disciples did so.
There is a famous story about the enlightenment of Bodhidharma's disciple, Hui-k'e. He went to Bodhidharma and said, "Master, could you calm my mind for me?"
Bodhidharma said, "Hand over your mind and I will calm it for you!"
Hui-k'e searched within, and then told Bodhidharma that he could not find his mind. Bodhidharma then said, "There, I have already calmed your mind for you." This is the account of Hui-k'e's enlightenment. Those of you who went to the retreat in Wales and suffered a lot of pain in your legs apparently need not have done so. Unfortunately, you did not meet
Another interesting concept which did not exist in India appeared in the Ch'an tradition very early, around the time of the fifth patriarch (early 6th century). It was that every existent object, animate or inanimate, can reach Buddhahood. Sakyamuni Buddha himself said that all sentient beings, including animals, could reach Buddhahood, but he did not say that plants, rocks and so on could also do so. Indian Buddhism did not say that these things could not become Buddhas, but only spoke of sentient beings. This notion came from the Taoist tradition, especially the writings of Chuang-tzu, where it is said that the Tao can be found everywhere. Taoism has a very naturalistic flavour. By the time of the Sixth Patriarch (638-713), then, both the methods of practice and the concepts of Ch'an had become uniquely Chinese.
Does this mean that Ch'an is different from Buddhism? Ch'an is definitely Buddhism; there is no doubt about that. First, Ch'an emphasizes the cultivation of samadhi, and there was no time when the Buddha was not in samadhi. With the power of samadhi a person can be free from the distractions and temptations of all kinds of situations. Second, like all forms of Buddhism, Ch'an emphasizes the cultivation of wisdom. In any situation, the accomplished practitioner experiences phenomena as emptiness, and emptiness as phenomena. This is wisdom. Third, the ultimate goal of practice is the same for the Ch'an practitioner as it was for ancient Indian Buddhists. Thus the emphasis on samadhi and wisdom in Ch'an, and the final goal of practice, all accord with Indian Buddhism.
In the history of Ch'an, few practitioners have attained enlightenment without prolonged practice of sitting meditation. Since most of us are unable to practice so constantly, other methods have been developed to subdue our vexations and pacify our minds. Here is one which relates to the way we live our daily lives: in all the situations, whether we are eating, sleeping, cooking, cutting wood or going to the toilet, our minds should remain calm, clear and concentrated. Can this be done? It is easier if you live in a monastery, but those who do not live in monasteries can dedicate short periods of time to full-time practice, such as a retreat. If we train ourselves sufficiently on retreat, it is possible to maintain concentration and clarity in daily life.
Q. Is sitting meditation an important part of the life of the monks and nuns in Taiwan?
A. I did not have time to talk about the second Chinese sect that emphasizes practice, the Pure Land sect. Their method of practice is the recitation of the name of the Buddha. Sitting meditation is tough, especially on the legs, so people need an alternative method of practice where the legs will not hurt so much. In Taiwan, my own monastery is one of the very few where sitting meditation is the main method of practice, but by reciting the name of the Buddha we can also reach the goal of samadhi.
Q. What do you see when you look at the audience?
A. I see the audience paying a lot of attention. If I could see that all of you were Buddhas, then
that would mean that I had attained Buddhahood. But I cannot lie.
Q. Do you then see suffering beings, beings in samsara?
A. Yes, it can be said to be like that. Otherwise, there would be no need for me to go to different places to spread the Dharma, to teach people to sit in meditation, and to alleviate suffering.
Q. How different is teaching Ch'an in the West from teaching Ch'an in the East? Are there cultural differences which entirely change your emphasis in teaching?
A. When I teach Ch'an I take different approaches, but that only depends on the personality and level of education of the student. It doesn't have much to do with their cultural background. When I first went to the United States to teach Ch'an I was already forty-five, so I think that in the future when Westerners teach Ch'an in the West they will do so somewhat differently.
Q. In what way might that be different?
A. I cannot really predict what it will be like. Buddhism went to China and changed somewhat in style. Similarly when it went to Japan, and the same will be true for the West. The structure and the style of the teaching will be different, but not the principles.
Q. Does Ch'an have any special attitudes to the dimension of time as we know it?
A. Could you be more specific?
Q. Attitudes to the nature of time often seem to reveal human nature and its mysteries. Does Ch'an have any special attitude to the way our experience of time is, for example, different from a clock psychologically?
A. As the time you perceive or feel becomes less, does this mean that the spatial movement you feel becomes less or more? For the Ch'an practitioner, the fewer thoughts you have the shorter is your perception of time. When you have no thoughts, time does not exist. When you use methods of practice that involve contemplation on the external environment, as your perception of time gets shorter and shorter, your perception of space gets larger and larger. When time does not exist, space expands to infinity. At infinity, space does not exist. The other direction is when your mind is turned inwardly in contemplation. Now as time gets shorter and shorter, the sense of space gets smaller and smaller, but at this limit also, space does not exist. In other words, your perception of time and space depends on your method of practice, but at the limiting points neither space nor time exists. Any experience of time is illusory.
Q. You sound as though you take the extreme view of nihilism.
A. It may appear that way. Quite often people misunderstand the concept of emptiness in Buddhism as something that is nihilistic or that results in a passive attitude towards the world and life. But when you have very few thoughts you do not necessarily stop your activity. When you have very few distracting thoughts you see the environment more clearly, and when you have no thoughts at all you can reflect the environment perfectly, with a precisely appropriate understanding of it. Besides wisdom, compassion is emphasized in Buddhism. An enlightened person, perfectly reflecting the environment, experiences no problems or vexations himself or herself, but he or she understands that many sentient beings experience vexation. The enlightened person with wisdom and compassion will engage in a limitless endeavor to help these sentient beings and to deliver them from suffering. So it is not a nihilistic world-view, but on the contrary a very active attitude towards the world.
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