Chinese Chan and Its Relevance in North America Today (Part 2) 

* A lecture by Master Sheng-yen at the University of Toronto (May 7, 1988)


III. What is Chinese Chan?

What is Chinese Chan? I will discuss this in four sections:

  1. Chinese Chan refers to methods of spiritual practice transmitted from India to China.
  2. Chinese Chan methods are flexible and adaptable.
  3. The aim of Chinese Chan is sudden enlightenment.
  4. Chinese Chan can be practiced in everyday life.

1.) Chinese Chan refers to the methods of Buddhist practice which were transmitted from India to China. An early Chan master named Seng-ch'ou (480-560) based his teachings on the Indian methods. One of these methods, which is derived from the Hinayana tradition, is called The Four Places for Concentration of Thought. In this method the practitioner meditates upon:


the uncleanliness or impurity of the body; the nature of suffering (dukkha); the absence of true self or ego as the center of your psycho-physical being (anata); and the impermanent (anicca) nature of all dharmas.


Another method Master Seng-ch'ou taught was to maintain constant awareness of the inevitability and reality of one's own death.


Master Seng-ch'ou also taught Mahayana methods, which he said pacified the mind by preventing it from dwelling on any particular place or thing. That is true pacification of the mind. Fourth Patriarch Tao-hsin, Fifth Patriarch Hung-jen, Master Tsung-tsi and Dogen all taught basic Indian meditation methods as well.


2.) Chinese Chan methods are flexible and adaptable. A master will not restrict himself to any one method or technique. This flexibility is called chan-chi. In different situations and different conditions with different people, a master will use a variety of methods in order to lead his disciples to enlightenment.


Once a layman asked Hui-neng the following question: "Outside of Chan meditation and samadhi, there is no way to reach enlightenment, right?"

Hui-neng answered, "No. That is not the case. The Tao (ultimate way) is realized from the mind, by the mind. How could it be created by the act of sitting?"


A number of T'ang Dynasty masters were famous for the methods they developed. Master Teh-shan hit people with the incense stick. Lin-chi shouted. Chao-chou told people to go and drink a cup of tea. Hui-Ts'ang used archery. If anyone asked him a question about Buddhism, he'd say, "Watch me shoot this arrow."


These masters became famous for their methods, but they did not mechanically use the same method for everybody. Teh-shan would not hit a disciple who was not ready for it. No true master would use the same method for everyone.


3.) Chinese Chan stresses sudden enlightenment. The Indian schools use gradual methods which allow the practitioner to progress from shallow insights to deeper and deeper levels of understanding. However, the tradition which became most widespread in China involves sudden enlightenment. Chinese Chan does teach gradual methods to beginning practitioners, but if a person has a solid foundation in meditation practice, Chinese Chan will try to push him toward sudden enlightenment.


There have been instances in history where people who had no background in formal Buddhist practice met a master for the first time and were immediately tested with a sudden enlightenment technique. A master would often do this to test the would-be student's sincerity, understanding, and capability. If the results were favourable, the student would be accepted. If the beginner did not understand what lay behind the seemingly irrational technique that the master used, he would usually be sent away to practice gradual techniques.


The sudden enlightenment method brings about thorough insight and removes all conceptualizations, discriminating thoughts, and ideas and images of self.


A master in the ninth century, Huang-po Hsi-yun said, "To eat all day but to never bite into a single grain of rice. To walk all day but never tread on any piece of ground. In so doing there is no concept or image that other people and things and the self are distinct. Do not separate yourself from what you have to do, yet do not be confused by the environment or external condition. Only in this way can a person be at ease with and in himself. Such a person is one who has achieved ultimate emancipation." In other words, the goal is to be completely involved in our daily lives, but not to be led astray by what goes on around us.


4.) Chan can be practiced in everyday life. According to Indian Buddhism, you must leave society to practice -- meditate and gradually attain enlightenment and emancipation. In Chinese Chan spiritual practice is carried out in any environment. There is no need to depart from society. If we achieve what Huang-po described, a state completely free from entanglement and confusion, then we reach the point of true enlightenment.


We might ask: "If a Chan practitioner achieves enlightenment, will he still have problems? Is there still a need to practice?" The experience of enlightenment enables us to see that we live in a world of baseless anxiety and vexation. However, if we do not continue to practice, even after an enlightenment experience, we may still be attached to suffering. For this reason, we must continue to practice even after enlightenment.


Many express interest in sudden enlightenment, and they come to me for advice because they think sudden means quick and easy -- some simple trick will end all of their problems. But it's not that simple. When someone exhibits this attitude, I say, "If there were such a quick, effortless method, I would practice it myself instead of teaching it to you."


IV. Do North Americans need Chinese Chan?

Do we need Chinese Chan in North America? Are North Americans and Chinese the same or different? I think we are all fundamentally the same. During the time of the Sixth Patriarch, people in the north of China looked upon people in the south as barbarians. Hui-neng came from the South. When he first approached the Fifth Patriarch, Hung-jen, he told him that he hoped to achieve Buddhahood. Hung-jen laughed. He challenged Hui-neng with this: "People from the South do not have Buddha-nature, so how can they reach Buddhahood?"


Hui-neng immediately answered, "There may be different people in the North and South, but how can there be a distinction between North and South in Buddha-nature?" The question, then, is not whether North Americans and Chinese are the same; the question is whether North Americans have Buddha-nature or not. What do you think?


In China during the T'ang dynasty, a monk asked Master Yo-shan Wei-yen (745-828) this question: "Before Bodhidharma came here, did the teachings of Chan exist?" The master replied that they did. So the monk responded, "If the teachings were already here, why did Bodhidharma have to come?"


Master Yo-shan answered, "It is precisely because the teachings existed that Bodhidharma had to come."


North America is no different. It's only because Chan has always been here that I have any reason to come and talk about it.


How can North Americans study and practice Chinese Chan? Here are some suggestions: First, come to hear me speak about Chan Buddhism. Second, adopt a method of practice. You can decide whether you prefer traditional Buddhist meditation techniques or sudden enlightenment techniques. If you want to use traditional techniques, there are many methods to choose from, such as counting breaths, concentrating on the breath, or meditating on the uncleanliness of the body. If you want to use sudden enlightenment techniques, that's even simpler.


These techniques were systematized during the Sung dynasty. The most common sudden enlightenment method was to meditate upon a kung-an (koan). The most popular kung-an is "Wu." Another common and effective technique is to ask yourself the hua-t'ou (question), "Who am I?"


If you try to answer this question intellectually, you will become frustrated and confused: "Who am I? I am me. That's too simple. Maybe I'm not me. Then who am I?" And so on. However, with the proper guidance, this hua-t'ou is really an effective technique. Ultimately, the best method is no method, that which cannot be conceived. If it cannot be conceived or expressed in words, then I cannot teach it to you with words. It transcends language.


In closing, let me answer a question I was asked earlier. Will I alter the way I teach Buddhadharma to accommodate the culture and the mind-set of North Americans? Since I am a Chinese Dharma Master, I can bring the teachings of Chinese Chan to you as they were passed down to me. When you as Westerners become Dharma Masters, then you will shape the teachings and techniques according to your background and experience. Thank you.