Chan Path to Enlightenment 

A public lecture given by Master Sheng-Yen during his visit to Zagreb, Croatia on May 15, 1997


The topic of tonight's lecture is Chan way of enlightenment, and I am sure that you all know that. Chan or Zen arose from India and matured in China. As for the purpose of Chan, and the cause for Chan practice, there is only one, that is to be free from vexations and suffering, to be enlightened. Everyone wants to feel sense of freedom, fortune and happiness.


However, very few people can attain happiness, freedom and fortune. Also, from birth to death there are a very few opportunities and possibilities for a person to attain happiness, freedom and blessing.


Many people confront difficulties in life and believe that these difficulties and adverse situations come from the environment and from interactions with other people. However, the true cause for these difficulties that we face, that lead to suffering, come from internal mind, our internal mind's imbalance and contradictions. Philosophers and religious leaders have through time tried to come out with methods and perspectives, concepts that will alleviate people from difficulties in life and suffering. However, up to the present they haven't yet come up to solutions and these problems and difficulties are still here.


Conflicts not only rise between nations, societies, families, but even between people who are close, companions. I'd like to ask all of you in the audience here tonight, please raise your hands if you have never argued or had some kind of confrontation with your wife or husband or someone close to you. Many people may say that arguments, confrontations, are pleasurable, and quite enjoyable. They say that this is a healthy way of expressing themselves. This is possible only if two people are joking or love each other very much. However, if there is a sense of opposition and competition between people, as it usually is in daily life, then it is definitely suffering.


We will hear how Shakyamuni Buddha found a resolution to difficulties that we face in life, and vexations, suffering that we have. Perhaps this will be of some use to you, perhaps it will give you something to reflect on. Shakyamuni Buddha, before he became the Buddha, was called Siddharta. He was born in India as a prince of a small kingdom. He was raised with best education, he lived in a palace, and had everything he wished for. But, he was neither happy, nor did he feel freedom or blessing in his life. Not only did he feel that he was suffering and he was unhappy but he felt that those around him were in the same condition. He felt that there is this inherent dissatisfaction hidden in life. Therefore, he left the householder's life and became a mendicant, seeking for a way to resolve human suffering. All of you came to find out some information about enlightenment, some idea about enlightenment, maybe perhaps you want to reach enlightenment yourself. So, here we are, sitting and standing in this room, which is quite hot, and listening to the man out here who is talking about suffering. This is good because this is related to the talk. Because all of you were willing to come and understand enlightenment, the suffering of this heat, in this particular circumstances, is bearable. This is very important point in relation to Buddhist idea of enlightenment. An important message of Shakyamuni Buddha, simply put, is that one should have courage to face one's suffering.


Facing suffering means fully understanding the working and the causes of suffering. Second important point is to accept suffering, for one must understand that one is experiencing suffering even if one does not want to accept it. If we do not accept difficulties and suffering that we face, then internally there will be more turmoil and more suffering. However, to accept suffering is not all we can do; once we accept it we should try to deal with it. Although intellectually, conceptually, we may understand that - yes, one should face one's problems, accept them and deal with them, in actuality we cannot do this. Because the natural reaction of human nature is to escape from suffering, we find ourselves constantly trying to escape problems, avoiding to face our difficulties in life. Then again we find ourselves back, but, being unresolved, the problem is always there, and we are caught in this cycle of escaping, returning to it again, escaping, returning to it again.


Therefore, not only should we have the courage to confront, to accept and to deal with it, we should deal with it with appropriate methods and concepts. In terms of concept, the primary principle that one should cultivate is compassion. When the guiding concept in one's conduct is compassion, then in interactions with people, when other people do something wrong, it is easy to forgive them. Also, in interacting with others, one will most likely not take initiative to harm other people. Because of this mindset that we cultivate we will create less enemies and therefore we will help ourselves.


Another guiding principle, a guiding concept, is wisdom. We should also learn to deal with situation with wisdom. When we confront a difficulty, the very first thing we should do is to recognize its nature of impermanence, that everything is temporary. Then, with this understanding, we calmly deal with the difficulty, appropriately and with the best of our ability. When we can do this, we can notice that not only we can decrease our difficulties, our suffering, but it is possible that we can be liberated from vexations.


We should point out another very important concept: that is impermanence. Everything is temporary, including the difficulties we face, including vexations, including suffering. Therefore, suffering is a kind of illusion, it has this illusory nature. Also, because suffering is impermanent, one can, through one's diligence in resolving difficulties and through the impermanence of the environment, be freed from it. Therefore, in summary, because of the nature of suffering, because of its impermanent nature, including ourselves, our situations and the external environment, suffering can be alleviated. In other words, we are constantly living our lives in possibilities and in hope, and because of impermanence anything, everything is possible. Our future is full of hope. Because we are constantly living our life in the midst of possibilities and hope, the suffering we are experiencing, in a sense is not real, because it is also temporary. If one is willing to undertake difficulties without trying to escape, then, while facing them and trying one's best to deal with suffering, suffering is also transformed, because one takes initiative to undertake and deal with it. Also, we can make our life more meaningful by not only resolving our own difficulties in life and facing our own problems, but trying to help other people to solve problems. This is the ideal of bodhisattva, an enlightened being. Since suffering occurs when one has the mind of trying to escape, when one is engaged in compassionate action, undertaking suffering oneself and helping other people to be free from suffering, in the midst of that there is liberation for that person.


Now if a person upon hearing this can be enlightened, immediately at this very moment, than that person, in Buddhist terms, is said to have virtuous karmic roots or karmic capacities. However, seeing that you haven't been enlightened yet, we will have to talk about the method. Although most people intellectually can accept this, in reality they still experience suffering, even myself is included. Therefore, all of us should stay here and continue to listen. Generally speaking there are two basic, fundamental methods. One is mindfulness of breath; the other one is observing thoughts. These have been the prevalent methods since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha. Do you wish to learn it? We'll try this now. First, close your eyes, whether you are standing or sitting. Close your eyes and try to reduce tension in your eyes. Relax your head, your facial muscles and then the rest of your body. Ensure your muscles are all relaxed. If you are sitting, the only place where you feel the sense of weight is in your buttocks, if your are standing, your sense of weight is in the feet. The rest of the body should be completely relaxed.


I'll repeat, please relax your eyes, this means not to have tension in your eyes, without being engaged in thinking. Also, relax your facial muscles. If you can have taste of this and experience this relaxation then through this you'll reveal that one's life is worthwhile and happy. However I see people whose body is rocking back and forth. You should understand that this is illusory state, you should open your eyes and gain some control over your body. If, in the beginning, when you practice this basic method, you see images or hear strange sounds, you should treat them as illusions. If you continue using these methods, two possibilities can happen - one is to start falling asleep, the other is not being able to control thinking, when all sorts of wandering thoughts continue to rise in one's mind. Therefore, you should learn to develop awareness of your breath, at your nostrils, breathing in and out. This awareness is the awareness on the sensation of the in and out of breath. When you can be naturally be mindful of this sensation you will feel relaxed and happy. However if one continues to use this method for a longer period it is possible to start feeling drowsy or giving rise to wandering thoughts. At this moment then one should change one's method to observing one's mind, not to forcefully focus one's attention, but to develop natural awareness of one's thoughts, and of workings of one's mind. Then after some time, through this awareness, observation, naturally the thoughts will subside and one will reach a calm, stable state.


Now please open your eyes. Are you tired or sleepy? Do you feel suffering or do you feel happy? Are you cold? After this short time of practice, please raise your hands if you feel that you are more relaxed physically or that your mind is being clear. However, one should not look upon this practice as some kind of a pain killer, so every time you have headache you just do this practice. You should try to practice this on a regular basis, even if you practice this for five minutes.


However if one continues to practice this, one will directly experience that thoughts do not truly exist, and that none of these thoughts is one's self. The idea of I cannot be found in these thoughts. It is much like viewing a waterfall. From the far we feel that it is one whole sheet, but if we look closely we can see single drops of water, continuous drops of water that make it. But the waterfall, the idea of waterfall cannot be found in these water drops. Our mind is very much the same, it is this continuation of thoughts, and neither one of these thoughts can be called the mind. Our mind is like this, also our sense of self, the I, is like this. In this momentary change we cannot find which exactly moment is I. It is like when we see a movie projector projecting images. What we see at first is one continuous movement but it is made of different fragments, frames. The film may be about a person's life, but the idea of life cannot be found in any frame. When a person through mediation practice directly comes to this realization, not intellectually, then this wisdom of no-self manifests, then this is enlightenment.


Buddhist enlightenment or zen enlightenment of no-self does not mean that a person just vanishes from the face of the Earth. It means the realization that there is no fixed entity called self, and because of this direct realization there is no self-attachment. Therefore, one will not give rise to vexations and one will not experience suffering. Even though interactions with people may be difficult, or the natural environment may be objectively difficult, one will not give rise to vexations. Instead of these states, what will be there in the mind of that person is happiness. Although one self has reached this genuine state of happiness, other people are still experiencing suffering, therefore in that person compassion spontaneously arises and a wish to share, to show other people what one knows and to help other people how to be alleviated of suffering and reach happiness. That is the spirit and reality of bodhisattva practice, the practice of the enlightened beings and Buddhas.


And now I will introduce to you the easiest way to enlightenment, the methods of Chan from China. The way of enlightenment introduced before is a gradual process, stage after stage. However in Chinese Chan or zen there is the idea of sudden enlightenment. Do you want to know it? Chan does not propose any special methods of practice, it is method-less. It talks about not relying on concepts, words or language. Without all of these, one should attain enlightenment by oneself. There is a saying: "One must not allow one's mind to have any place to fix an abide; nowhere should the mind find a kind of resting place". Without any resting place or thought means without being conditioned whatsoever. Naturally, there is no place for our sense of self to stand on. When one can accomplish this, that is enlightenment, sudden enlightenment. I'll give you two analogies. Allow your mind to be like the tracks of a bird flying across the sky. The second analogy is likened to one driving a nail through empty sky. Mind; so called mind, is impermanent and has the illusory nature. In this light, wanting to have a fixed place, or a place to stand on, is a joke. Try to remember this when you have vexations. Our sense of self, although it may seam solid and concrete, is empty. However, what most people experience is the strong sense of self, that we exist and that everything is solid and concrete. Therefore, the Chan sect uses methods, and one of the most popular methods is asking questions, like the question: "Who am I?" This is the method called huatou. Another famous, commonly used questions, is asking one self: "What is wu?" Wu in Chinese means nothingness. Of course, one can come up with two answers, two questions. One is "Who knows? I do not know". The second answer is to start reflecting "You fool, why do you start asking questions anyway?". But neither one of this answers is enlightenment. However, one should continue to ask, until all of one's attachments and the sense of self is cut off, then at that moment there is enlightenment. As for tonight's topic, a Zen way toward enlightenment, it is finished here. As for whether you are enlightened, I have finished, too. Whether it was useful or useless I do not know.