Ch’an and Enlightenment – by Master Sheng-yen

Master Shen Yen

Ch’an and Enlightenment
Lecture given by master Sheng-yen at Case Western Reserve University on 10/25/92, edited by Linda Peer and Harry Miller

Today I am here to talk about Ch’an. Perhaps some of you have heard the sayings, “Ch’an is not established on words and language” and “Ch’an is a transmission outside conventional teachings.” If Ch’an does not rely on words, why would anyone want to listen to a Ch’an talk? Isn’t that a contradiction? Although Ch’an is not established on words, it has, among the many sects of Buddhism in China, left behind the most writing. The primary goal of these writings, however, is to show you or teach you that “Ch’an is not established on words or language” and that “Ch’an is a transmission outside the conventional teachings.” I am here today for the same purpose. So there is a reason for you to listen to such a talk.

The word “ch’an” can mean enlightenment, and enlightenment kai-wu can be translated as “the first meaning,” “the ultimate meaning,” or “the primary truth.” In Ch’an there is also what is called “secondary meaning.” Secondary meaning can be expressed in words and concepts, but the primary or ultimate meaning of Ch’an cannot be expressed in words. In the Ch’an tradition, the primary truth is sometimes compared to the moon, and the secondary truth to a finger pointing at the moon. Someone seeing the moon points to show it to people who haven’t seen it yet. They look at his finger, not the moon. The finger is not the moon. Words, language, ideas, and concepts are like the finger and can only express the secondary truth. They only point to the primary truth. The primary truth can be called mind, original nature or Buddha nature. It is something everyone must experience for him or herself. It can never be fully described.

Now I will use words and concepts to talk about the methods of practice that have been developed to help people experience the primary truth of Ch’an. Not only methods of practice are required. It is also necessary to have the guidance of the concepts of Buddhism and Ch’an. Without this guidance, even if some kind of experience or insight results from your meditation, it will not be enlightenment. Also, not everyone can use the same method of practice.

The first principle of Ch’an is selflessness. A practitioner must drop self-centeredness, self-attachment, and any perception of opposition between the self and the environment. We may experience the self in the narrow, limited form of everyday self interest, or in the more objective and inclusive form of universal oneness. As long as there is any kind of self and attachment to that self, there can be no enlightenment in the Ch’an sense.

To talk about the methods of Ch’an practice, we have to understand something about its theory. Ch’an Buddhism developed from Indian Buddhism and the first principle of Buddhism is selflessness. There are three key concepts in Buddhism: everything is impermanent; all dharmas (phenomena) do not have intrinsic selfhood; and what is called the quiescence of Nirvana. From the perspective of Ch’an, the quiescence of Nirvana is the experience of emptiness, selflessness or Ch’an enlightenment. The understanding that all activities are impermanent is the recognition that everything is constantly changing. This leads to the understanding that phenomena have no independent, external, substantial essence or self. If we summarize these three characteristics of Buddhism we can say that everything is impermanent, everything is selfless, and to experience this selflessness or emptiness is to experience the quiescence of Nirvana, Buddha nature, and enlightenment. Buddhism can never be separated from these three concepts or from the principle of selflessness. Since the Ch’an tradition came from Buddhism, it, too, is not separate from the principle of selflessness.

Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Ch’an, arrived in China from India in about 475 A.D., and brought the message that everyone has Buddhanature. We should have faith in this. There is an important work attributed to Bodhidharma called The Two Entries and Four Practices, “Four practices” refers to four different methods leading to the Path. The fourth and most advanced of these is “the practice of being in accord with the dharma.” One meaning of “dharma” in Sanskrit is all phenomena. As we discussed earlier, it is a basic tenet of Buddhism that all phenomena are impermanent and do not have an intrinsic self. In the practice of union with the dharma we try to personally experience this impermanence and selflessness through direct contemplation on emptiness. This is the highest practice of Ch’an, and leads to the highest attainment. But it is not easy and can be discouraging. Unless we can make use of the practice of union with the dharma without becoming discouraged or tense, we should step back and start with more fundamental practices.

The “two entries” are entry through the principle and entry through practice. Entry through the principle means directly seeing the first principle or original nature without relying on words, descriptions, concepts, experience, or any thinking process. If we do not use any thinking process, what is our state of mind? Is it like somebody who has been knocked out, is it blank, or is it like someone in a coma? If this were the case, enlightenment would be a joke, and no one would be interested in practicing Ch’an.

Entry through principle is similar to the practice of being in accord with the Dharma. “Principle”, like “dharma”, means all phenomena. People often think of specific phenomena, including events, objects, beings, time, etc., as separate from some sort of substratum or basic substance. But phenomena and the substance of phenomena are not separate; principle is not separate from all phenomena or dharmas. When a person has no more self-centeredness or self-attachment, and sees his or her original nature, everything in the phenomenal world continues to exist except self-centeredness and self-attachment. This is called entry through principle. In this state our minds are not blank. But we do not enter this state through the thinking process.

According to legend, Bodhidharma sat in meditation for nine years, facing a wall in a cave on Mount Sung. In The Two Entries and Four Practices, Bodhidharma describes the mind as being like a wall. The method of practice used to accomplish entry through principle is precisely this phrase “Make your mind the same as a wall.” What does this mean? We see walls all over. We hang all sorts of things on them, paint them, use them for privacy, even make windows in them. We can do all sorts of things to a wall, but wall remains, unmoving. If your mind is like a wall, it also doesn’t move. People around you may exhibit their personalities, emotions, behaviors and so on, but these do not give rise to self-centered responses in your mind. You are alert and respond to the environment in an unselfcentered way, providing help for the people around you. This is the ideal, and it is the state of mind referred to in entry through the principle. Such a person is not an idiot or a fool.

The second entry is through practice. “Practice” refers to the gradual training of the mind, and Bodhidharma discusses four specific methods: accepting karmic retribution, adapting to favorable conditions, no seeking, and union with the Dharma. Each practice is progressively more advanced, and therefore should be followed in order.

Accepting karmic retribution involves recognizing the effects of karma and cause and consequence. When we face adversity, we should understand that we are receiving the karmic retribution from countless previous actions in countless previous lives. When we pay back some of our debt, we should feel happy that we have the capacity to do so. If we have this perspective, when misfortunes arise we will be tranquil and without resentment. We will not suffer from disturbing emotions or be discouraged or depressed. This is an important practice.

A few minutes ago I felt warm and took off my sweater. Would you like to ask why I didn’t take the attitude that feeling warm and uncomfortable is retribution for my previous karma?

Karma, or “cause and consequence”, has to be understood and applied in conjunction with another Buddhist concept that is “cause and conditions.” “Cause and conditions” describes the fact that things happen because of many conditions coming together. We cannot and should not run away from our responsibilities and the retribution caused by our karma. But we should try to improve our conditions and karma. If things can be improved, we must make them better. If they can’t be changed, then we should accept them with equanimity as karmic retribution.

For example, if I owe you my head from a previous life and now you want to claim it, I should pay you back. Nevertheless, I can discuss the situation with you, and maybe instead of taking my head, you will let me help you in some other way. Perhaps taking my head doesn’t do you any good. You may be willing to accept something which will benefit both of us instead. The possibility of these benefits are included in “cause and conditions.” The Buddhist concept of karmic retribution must always be joined with the principle of “cause and conditions” because any result will have many causes.

The second of the four practices recommended by Bodhidharma is “adapting to favorable conditions.” It also requires an understanding of “cause and conditions.” According with conditions means that we should do our best within the limits of the constraints of our environment. If our circumstances are fortunate or something good happens to us, we should not be overly excited. Good fortune, like bad, is a result of karmic retribution. Why should we feel excited when we are only enjoying the fruit of our own labor? It is like withdrawing money from your own bank account. In the account of karma, when you enjoy good fortune, you use up some of the retribution from previous good karma. You should be mindful of the benefits of accumulating such good karma. The practice of adapting to favorable conditions means that you accept your karma or “cause and consequence” without being overly joyful or self-satisfied.

Accepting karmic retribution and adapting to favorable conditions are very helpful practices in daily life. They allow us to improve our conditions and karma and maintain a positive attitude toward life. They help us to enjoy equanimity in the face of changing circumstances, improve our behavior and help us keep our relationships harmonious. These teachings of Bodhidharma are not hard to understand, and any ordinary person can make use of them. If we can apply them in daily circumstances, we will not avoid our responsibilities and we will make the best of our opportunities. In this way life will be more meaningful.

The third of Bodhidharma’s four practices is the practice of no seeking. There is a Chinese saying that people “raise children to help them in old age, and accumulate food in case of famine.” Today people in the West may not raise children just to support them in old age, but people probably still accumulate food or wealth in case of hardship. People certainly save money in order to use it later. This attitude is not the attitude of no seeking. In the practice of no seeking, you continually, diligently engage in useful activity, yet have no thought that this activity is for your personal gain now or in the future. You do not look for personal benefits. This is not easy, and it is a higher level of practice than the second practice.

In Buddhist practice we have to leave behind our selves and our personal experiences and experience selflessness before we can be enlightened. If your sense of self is strong, solid and formidable, then there is no way you can experience enlightenment. If you are attached to the idea of attaining enlightenment or Buddhahood, there is no way you can succeed. Attachment to your own self or attainment is in complete contradiction to the fundamental spirit of Ch’an Buddhism. Remember that two of the fundamental principles of Ch’an are that all phenomena are impermanent and have no self. If a person is attached to his own attainment, he cannot possibly be in accord with impermanence and therefore cannot be enlightened. If he has some kind of experience during meditation or experiences some kind of enlightenment, it is not Ch’an enlightenment.

Now you may feel a little disappointed. You may think, “If I should not desire enlightenment, what am I doing here learning about Buddhism?” In Buddhism it is important to make vows, a practice which is sometimes called “arousing the bodhi mind.” Vows are discussed in The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch of the Ch’an School, Hui-neng (638-713). There are four great vows; to help all sentient beings, to terminate all vexations, to learn all the Buddha Dharma (Buddha’s teachings), and to attain the highest enlightenment or Buddhahood. The goal of enlightenment is included in our most important vows. How can we understand this in relationship to the practice of no seeking?

When we practice the first two of Bodhidharma’s four practices, accepting karmic retribution and accepting favorable conditions, the rule of cause and consequence for our own selves is very important to us. It is normal for people to begin to learn and practice Buddhism for their own benefit. They would like to attain Buddhahood. Eventually, through practice, their selfcenteredness and selfishness begin to fall away and they no longer think so much about themselves. They find themselves busy because people need their help, and they provide what is needed, just like the wall we talked about before. Such a person is very much in demand and is constantly busy responding to the needs of other living beings. He or she no longer thinks about attaining enlightenment. These questions will not arise anymore.

When you have ceased to be concerned about your own attainment, then you are enlightened. Otherwise there will always be subtle, wandering thoughts and attachment to the desire to do something about yourself. If you want to free yourself from all worldly vexation or suffering, and you desire liberation, you are still attached to your self. It is only when you have no concern about your own enlightenment that you can truly be enlightened. The practice of no seeking is the practice of this enlightened state.

In The Platform Sutra it is said that even after a person is enlightened, he should continue to make the four great vows: to help sentient beings, to terminate vexations, to learn Buddha Dharma, and to attain Buddhahood. The difference is that after enlightenment, you do not perceive anything as separate from your own self nature. There are no sentient beings other than self nature, no vexations other than self nature, no Dharma other than self nature, and no Buddhahood other than self nature. You continue to do numerous things, helping sentient beings, terminating vexations, and learning the Dharma, with an unmoving, natural, spontaneous mind. There will be no specific thought or goal to seek. Buddhahood will be attained in this state of mind.

The fourth of Bodhidharma’ s practices is “union with the Dharma.” It is the practice which allows us to reach the point of “entry through principle,” and we talked about it earlier. Both no seeking and union with the Dharma are not easy.

Where does a practitioner begin? Different Buddhist sects employ many methods of practice which can be used by beginners, including reading the scriptures, making vows, prostration, mindfulness of the Buddha, counting the breath, etc. These methods all help us go from scattered mind, which is confused, emotional and unstable, to a mental state that is tranquil and in harmony with our environment. Once our minds are tranquil we can use more advanced methods, such as kung-an, hua-t’ou, or Silent Illumination.

The very first thing we should do is relax body and mind. If we can relax, we will be healthier, more stable and relate to others more harmoniously.

There is a Buddhist householder who comes to the Center who is very nervous. This causes other people to be nervous. When he talks to you his body is tense, as if he is about to attack you or defend himself. People react to this kind of behavior. It disturbs them. I told him to relax his body and he responded in a tense, forced voice, “I am already relaxed!” He is constantly fearful or insecure, and because of the problems this causes him to come to the Ch’an Center to seek help. He wanted to learn meditation so I taught him to gradually relax his body and then his mind. If we can’t relax there is no way we can meditate and if we can not meditate the practice of no seeking is completely impossible. This man was impatient, and thought that if he got enlightened all his problems would disappear. He said to me, “Master, I do not want anything, I just want the method to get enlightened quickly. Give me the method as soon as possible.” I answered, “Such a method has not been invented. If I could invent a guaranteed, speedy method of enlightenment, I could probably sell it for quite a lot of money.” (laughter)

Now I have invented the following method, and offer it free of charge to whoever wishes to learn. The method is to relax your body and mind. It is easy and simple. Do not ask whether it can lead you to enlightenment. First you should be able to relax and later we can talk about enlightenment. Close your eyes, lean back in your chair, and relax your muscles. Completely relax your eyes. It is very important that your eyelids be relaxed and do not move. There should not be any tension around your eyeballs. Do not apply any force or tension anywhere. Relax your facial muscles, shoulders and arms. Relax your abdomen and put your hands in your lap. If you feel the weight of your body, it should be at your seat. Do not think of anything. If thoughts come, ignore them and pay attention to the feeling of inhaling and exhaling your breath at your nostrils. Ignore what other people are doing. Concentrate on your own practice, forget about your body, and relax. Do not entertain doubts about whether what you are doing is useful.

This method of relaxation should be used for three to ten minutes. If you do it for longer you will probably feel restless or fall asleep. You can use this method a few times a day and it will refresh your body and mind and eliminate some of the confusion in your daily life. Gradually you will gain the stability of body and mind that make it possible to use the methods of Ch’an meditation. If your body and mind are not stable, it will be quite impossible for you to do Ch’an practice, so relaxing can be considered the first step. The next step is to learn meditation from a teacher.

Now you have tried this simple method for relaxing the mind and body. You should use it regularly at home. You can even share it with other people in order to help other living beings.