* A talk delivered by Master Sheng-yen on May 7, 1997, during a Chan retreat in Poland, and edited by Earnie Heau.
What is Chan? We may call Chan "mind"; we may also believe that this mind needs to be cultivated, so that it may become enlightened, may acquire wisdom. I say to you that there is in truth nothing to cultivate, nothing to acquire, for wisdom is inherent in every mind. Even so, most people don't know how to manifest this inherent wisdom. However, the Buddha in his great compassion taught us how to realize wisdom. We call this method Chan.
So people may think that Chan, or Zen, is something exotic that originated in India, got transmitted to China, then to Japan, and then to the West. A story illustrates the mistaken idea that Chan is something external to ourselves, that we can get it from a teacher. The story is about the Indian monk Bodhidharma, who introduced Chan to China in the sixth century. A monk asked his Chan master: "What did Bodhidharma bring from the West [India]?" The Chan master replied, in effect, "Nothing. He just told people that the Dharma of Chan is already here."
Likewise, the Dharma of Chan is already here and has always been; it is in each and every one of your hearts and minds. My only task is to remind you and to point out the correct concepts and methods to realize this truth. When the concepts that guide the method are correct and when the method is applied precisely, correctly, and diligently, the way of practice is right. Then this Dharma of Chan can manifest from your heart/mind. When that happens, you can realize inherent wisdom.
I would like to share with you the concepts and the methods of Chan. Correct concept, or understanding, is most important, and then comes correct method.
Chan relies on meditation, but to be enlightened does not require meditation. To understand what I am saying, let us consider what wisdom is, what enlightenment is. Wisdom, or enlightenment, refers to a state of mind where vexations have been extinguished. Vexations are all the delusory mind-states that proceed from attachment to the idea of self. All thought, judgment, discrimination, and seeking based on self-centeredness are considered vexations.
You come to retreat to benefit from practice. So you begin with self-interest, and this is fine. However, once you engage in the practice, you should put aside considerations of benefit. All you have to do, and all you must do, is practice with effort and consistency. If you have ideas of gaining or getting rid of something, you will just generate more vexations. Yes, the ultimate purpose of Chan is to realize enlightenment, and yes, Chan even talks about sudden enlightenment. But real progress is always gradual and involves stages.
First, learn how to concentrate the mind. Through concentrated mind, you can further unify the mind. Then you can dissolve and melt away your unified mind to attain no-mind, or enlightenment. So these three stages-concentrated mind, unified mind, and no-mind-come through gradual and focused practice.
I guide individuals according to their experience and situation. I may have someone begin with counting the breath. I may tell another person to begin straightaway with gong an or huatou practice. Very simply put, a gong an, or koan in Zen, is an anecdote of someone's enlightenment experience. For example, my grandmaster, Xu Yun (Empty Cloud), was holding a cup into which hot tea was being poured. Some of the tea spilled on his hand, and he dropped the cup. On hearing the cup shatter on the floor, Xu Yun experienced enlightenment. This story is a gong an. Meditating on or "investigating" a gong an, you focus all your energies on penetrating the meaning of the gong an. If you turn the story into a question such as "Who was enlightened when the cup broke?" and use that as a practice method, that is a huatou.
However, no matter what method you use, you go from scattered mind to concentrated mind and from there to unified mind. Then one can shatter this unified mind and experience no-mind, or enlightenment. Be assured, it is impossible to have a scattered mind and experience realization. On the other hand, please don't mistake the unified mind, the state of oneness, to be enlightenment. They are not the same.
So let's look more closely at unified mind. There are three stages of unified mind. The first is unity of body and mind. This is when the body sensation falls away, leaving only the experience of the practice itself. If you are doing breath-counting and you reach this state, you become the breath counting.
The second stage is when the practice itself disappears. For example, you are breath-counting, and as you become more concentrated, the numbers fall away; there is no more counting. There is only the awareness of breathing and clarity of mind, yet there is no thought of "I am only aware of my mind being clear." Moment to moment is the same, just this awareness. This second stage of unified mind is also when the words of the gong an fall away leaving only the awareness of working on the gong an, each moment like the other, without self-consciousness.
The third kind of unified mind comes from raising what is called the "doubt sensation" or "doubt mass." For example, by energetically and persistently practicing a gong an, you may reach a point at which in your mind there are no more words, and even the gong an itself has fallen away; there is just this growing mass of energy. This energy is accompanied by a sense of wonder, of surrender to unknowing, but at the same time of intensely wanting to know. This doubt mass can become so great that one's mental absorption is complete. At some point, discriminating mind falls away.
Two things may happen. First, the doubt mass can be shattered, perhaps by some action or words heard or spoken, and one may experience enlightenment as in the case of Xu Yun. The second is that the doubt mass may dissipate, leaving the practitioner with a deep sense of peace and oneness. The practitioner may experience detachment from anything internal or external, even sensing no environment. Some may think this is an enlightenment experience, but this is still a unified state because this very sense of no inside, no outside, comes from a sense of self. At this stage, the sense of self may be extremely subtle, but it is there nevertheless.
To experience no-mind is the true Chan. It takes a master of deep enlightenment to ascertain if someone else has reached just a oneness state or a genuine no-self state. Teachers who themselves only reached this deeper oneness state cannot truly judge whether a student has really experienced enlightenment. If they believe themselves to be enlightened, they may mistakenly certify students who have only reached this unified mind state. If these teachers, believing in their own enlightenment, stop practicing, they will never know the state of no-self, and that is unfortunate.
Chan history is full of stories about disciples whose experiences were not confirmed by a master. Sometimes they left believing that the masters were incompetent because of this. But there are also cases where disciples later became enlightened masters themselves and were truly grateful to some earlier teacher for not validating their premature experiences. This allowed them to persist and continue their practice and, in time, achieve true realization.
I hope you will all put forth your best efforts in your practice. Do not concern yourself with enlightenment. I say this even though I just spent some time telling you what enlightenment is. But you need to begin with correct views, and that is what I have tried to give you. To practice Chan, one needs dedication and effort. Whatever you experience in practice, whether it be concentrated mind or even a deep unified state, if there is seeking, there is no enlightenment. My purpose is to guide you from a scattered to a concentrated mind, from a concentrated mind to a unified mind, from a unified mind to no-mind.
To cultivate the mind is most important and achievable. But even if you cannot reach no-mind, just to have periods of concentrated mind is good and contributes to progress. To reach no-mind, to reach enlightenment, may sound extremely difficult. Certainly, without correct concepts and correct methods and without a good guide, it is very difficult. However, if one has correct views and a correct method and the knowledge to use it, it is possible to realize your inherent wisdom. I believe that regarding concept and views on practice, you have heard clearly and you have understood.