“Self Power” in the Chan Tradition
The Internal Quest for Sudden Enlightenment


 
The Birth of Chan
From Wuwei (Non-Action) to Wuxin (No-Mind)
The Chan school’s initial emergence and rise to prominence occurred during the Tang era, when a large number of charismatic Chan teachers such as Huineng (638-713), the renowned “sixth patriarch,” and Mazu Daoyi (709-788), the leader of the Hongzhou school that by the early ninth century came to dominate the Chan movement, achieved wide acclaim and attracted numerous disciples. A prominent feature of the early Chan school’s character and a major reason for its popularity were the personal charisma of its prominent teachers and the appeal of their teachings, which contained creative reconfigurations of essential Buddhist themes and concepts, recast in a distinctive Chan idiom. For the Chan school, the Tang era was a period of nascent growth marked by great intellectual creativity and religious vitality, often considered to be the tradition’s golden age. Subsequently memories (along with creative imaginings) of the glories of Tang Chan came to dominate traditional narratives of Chan history, even if those narratives were constructed in ways that reflected the beliefs and ideologies of later traditions. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 156]
 
 
The World-Honored One spoke: “I possess the True Dharma Eye, the Marvelous Mind of Nirvana, the True Form of the Formless, the Subtle Dharma Gate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahakasyapa.” [Zen Buddhism: A History, 9]
 
 
Bodhidharma (c. 470-543)
The Twenty-Eighth (Indian)/First (Chinese) Patriarch

 
A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded on words and letters.
Directly pointing to a person’s mind,
One sees one’s nature and becomes a Buddha.
[Translated by Brian Hoffert;
cf. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 221
]
 
 

 
Bodhidharma sat in zazen facing the wall. The Second Patriarch, who had been standing in the snow, cut off his arm and said, “Your disciples mind is not yet at peace. I beg you, my teacher, please give it peace.” Bodhidharma said, “Bring the mind to me, and I will set it at rest.” The Second Patriarch said, “I have searched for the mind, and it is finally unattainable.” Bodhidharma said, “I have thoroughly set it at rest for you.” [Zen Buddhism: A History, 92]
  • What does this story tell us about the “Quest for Sudden Enlightenment”? What does “Sudden Enlightenment” mean — and how is it attained?
  • How does this approach differ from those of previous forms of Buddhism, from Indian Theravada and Mahayana to Chinese Tiantai and Huayan? How is it distinctively Chinese?
 
The Platform Sutra
The Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng
(638-713)


Unexpectedly one day the Fifth Patriarch called his disciples to come, and when they had assembled, he said, Let me preach to you. For people in this world birth and death are vital matters. You disciples make offerings all day long and seek only the field of blessings, but you do not seek to escape from the bitter sea of birth and death [i.e. samsara]. Your own self nature obscures the gateway to blessings; how can you be saved? All of you return to your rooms and look into your selves. Men of wisdom will of themselves grasp the original nature of their prajna intuition. Each of you write a verse and bring it to me. I will read your verses, and if there is one who is awakened to the cardinal meaning, I will give him the robe and the Dharma and make him the Sixth Patriarch. Hurry, hurry!’ [Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 157]
.
Shenxiu’s Poem
Our body is the bodhi tree,
Our mind a mirror bright.
Always strive to polish it,
And let no dust alight.

Hui Neng’s Poem
Originally no bodhi tree,
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since neither of these things exist,
Where can the dust alight.
[translated by Brian Hoffert; cf. Chinese Religion..., 158-9]
 
At midnight the Fifth Patriarch called me into the hall and expounded the Diamond Sutra to me. Hearing it but once, I was immediately awakened, and that night I received the Dharma. None of the others knew anything about it. Then he transmitted to me the Dharma of Sudden Enlightenment and the robe, saying: ‘I make you the Sixth Patriarch. The robe is the proof and is to be handed down from generation to generation. My Dharma must be transmitted from mind to mind. You must make people awaken to themselves.’ [Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 159]
 
Dao must be something that circulates freely; why should [the deluded person] impede it? If the mind does not abide in things, the Dao circulates freely; if the mind abides in things, it becomes entangled. [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 500]
 

Kill the Buddha, advises Ch’an master I-hsuan [Yixuan] (died 867), known also as Lin-chi [Linji]. I-hsuan was revered as the founding figure of the Lin-chi tradition of Buddhism, a tradition that took its name from Lin-chi Monastery, his residence. ... His admonition to kill the Buddha, kill one’s parents, and kill the patriarchs is obviously not meant to be taken literally; it is a figurative attack on spiritual and intellectual parasitism. I-hsuan has no use for bodhisattvas or “arhats,” those “worthy ones” of history who attained enlightenment. To undermine formalism, he shouts and beats his disciples into awareness and into a self-reliance autonomous of even heaven and earth itself. ... I-hsuan’s hallmark is his unconventional teaching technique; he is well known for his kung-ans, literally “public cases,” an expression better known in English as koan, the Japanese pronunciation of that term. Kung-ans are paradoxical stories or sayings, language games intended to unsettle the listener’s preconceptions. One of the most famous of all is I-hsuan’s dried-excrement stick kung-an, which is a commentary on the universality of the Buddha nature, which is in even the most common things. [Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 161]

 
Selections from the Recorded Sayings
Question: “Master, whose tune are you singing? Whose tradition are you perpetuating?” The Master said, “When I was a disciple of Huang-po, I asked him [about the basic idea of the Law (Dharma)] three times and I was beaten three times.” As the monk hesitated about what to say, the Master shouted at him and then beat him, saying, “Don’t nail a stick into empty space.” [Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 162]

The Master ascended the hall and said, “Over a lump of reddish flesh there sits a pure man, who transcends and is no longer attached to any class of Buddhas or sentient beings. He comes in and out of your sense organs all the time. If you are not yet clear about it, look, look!” At that point a monk came forward and asked, “What is a pure man who does not belong to any class of Buddhas or sentient beings?” The Master came right down from his chair and, taking hold of the monk, exclaimed, “Speak! Speak!” As the monk deliberated what to say, the Master let him go saying, “What dried [shit]-stick is the pure man who does not belong to any class of Buddhas or sentient beings!” Thereupon he returned to his room. [Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 162]


Contemporary Chan Practice
Chan Master Sheng-yen’s Faith in Mind

Beginning in the late forties, official proscriptions against so-called feudal superstitions suspended religious activity on the mainland for several decades. On the island of Taiwan, however, where the rival Nationalist party relocated after 1949 and established a separate political sovereignty, traditional folkways and spiritual disciplines continued relatively undisturbed. One of the many religious practitioners who moved to the island is the Ch’an Buddhist teacher Master Sheng-yen (born 1931). ... Much Western literature on Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen has emphasized the spiritual goals of “sudden enlightenment” and “nirvana” while glossing over the tedious hours of sitting meditation that, as Master Sheng-yen states, should be performed without attempting to attain any goals or enlightenment experience. There is no calculated “result” that can be obtained; to set up a goal and to distinguish between ignorance and enlightenment is to create artificial separations and barriers within the totality that is awakened Buddhahood. Master Sheng-yen sees the practice of Ch’an as a progression of the mind from scattered mind to one mind to no mind. The scattered mind can be calmed with sitting meditation that focuses on an awareness of one’s own breathing; with greater practice, the mind can be united in the experience of samadhi, a Sanskrit term that refers to an absorptive trancelike experience. With the help of paradoxical hua-t’ou or kung-an questions, however, one drops off ordinary thought and crosses the nonbarrier back to one’s own original nature, to an experience that is neither scattered mind nor one mind but is something else again. That “something else again,” which is knowable by experience but can only be suggested using ordinary speech, is indicated by the nonword “no-mind.” [Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 331-2]
 

The Supreme Way is not difficult.
If only you do not pick and choose.
Neither love nor hate,
And you will clearly understand.
Be off by a hair,
And you are as far apart as heaven from earth.

The sole purpose of a Ch’an retreat is to practice. You should keep your attention entirely on practice, without trying to attain any results. Since many of you have travelled far, or have worked hard to set aside the time, you have a great deal invested in this retreat. It is natural that you want to gain something. But once you enter the retreat, you must put aside any specific hopes.
       Practicing with a goal in mind is like trying to catch a feather with a fan. The more you go after it, the more it eludes you. But if you sneak up on it slowly, you can grab it. The aim of practice is to train your patience and forbearance, to train your mind to become calm and stable. Any attachment or seeking will prevent your mind from settling down. ...
       Holding on to various likes and dislikes keeps you apart from the Way. Discarding them will bring you in accord with the Way. But if there is the slightest misconception about this, the distance between you and the Way will be as great as that between heaven and earth. Don’t misinterpret this and think that since you are not supposed to attach to likes and dislikes, you should therefore not cultivate the Way. With this attitude it is useless to come to a Ch’an retreat.
       When you first set out to practice you will definitely have a goal in mind. You may be frustrated with your present condition and aim either to change yourself or to improve your circumstances. Certainly there is something you hope to achieve by practicing. You cannot just practice aimlessly. So practice itself implies some intention or desire. To fulfill your original intentions, you must constantly keep your mind on the method of practice. But as soon as you focus on the method you should not be thinking of what you want to accomplish, what level you want to reach, or what problems you want to get rid of. Instead, your mind should be exclusively applied to the method itself, free from all motives.
[Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 334-5]
 
Dogen Zenji
Caodong (J. Soto) School of Zen