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

Portrait of Bodhidharma
The Birth of Chan
From Wuwei (Non-Action) to Wuxin (No-Mind)
Outline of a Zen monk meditating
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 Buddha holding a flower
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)
Tibetan Dharma Wheel Turning
Chinese text of the "special transmission"
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
Shaolin monk in a martial arts pose
Bodhidharma's cave at the Shaolin Temple
Tibetan Dharma Wheel Turning
Huike standing outside of Bodhidharma's Cave
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)
Painting of Huike after cutting off his arm
What just happened here???
"bubbles" page divider
How does this approach differ from those of previous forms of Buddhism?
Chinese characters of "no mind" (wuxin)
Painting of Hui Neng ripping up a sutra
The Platform Sutra
The Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng

Huineng chopping firewood in the kitchenHong Ren, the Fifth PatriarchUnexpectedly 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.
A mirror in the shape of a person
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)
Click for cartoon of the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng
Zhuangzi with a butterfly in front of the Chinese character for Dao (the Way)
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)
GIF of a flowing stream
Tibetan Dharma Wheel Turning
Click for video of Chan Master Sheng Yen video on "Sudden and Gradual Enlightenment"
The Development of the Koan
Mazu Daoyi, Linji Yixuan & the Sudden/Gradual Debate
In contrast to the passive style of meditation practices in the Northern school, Ma-tsu promoted the dynamic Zen of the Sixth Patriarch; his teacher, Nan-yueh Huai-jang, had convinced him of the futility of simply sitting in meditation.The chronicle reports:
[Ma-tsu] was residing in the monastery of Dembo-in where he sat constantly in meditation.
The master, aware that he was a vessel of the Dharma, went to him and asked,
“Virtuous one, for what purpose are you sitting in meditation?”
Tao-i answered: “I wish to become a Buddha.”
Mazu rubbing a tile on a stone
Thereupon the master picked up a tile and started rubbing it on a stone in front of the hermitage.
Tao-i asked: “What is the Master doing?”
The master replied: “I am polishing [this tile] to make a mirror.”
“How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?” exclaimed Tao-i.
“And how can you make a Buddha by practicing zazen?” countered the master.
(Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume 1, 161-3)
Ma-tsu is the dominant figure in early Zen. The principal stage of his activity was Chiang-hsi (Kiangsi) Province. Crowds of disciples streamed after him and he often changed location. With him begins the mainstream of Chinese Zen, out of which would arise the powerful Rinzai school. He was the first to make use of shouting (Chin., ho; Jpn., katsu) as a means of fostering enlightenment, a means later made famous by Lin-chi (Jpn., Rinzai). With Ma-tsu paradox is mixed with rudeness. On one occasion, at the conclusion of a paradoxical dialogue, he suddenly grabbed the nose of his disciple Pai-chang and twisted it so violently that the disciple cried out in pain — and attained enlightenment. (Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume 1, 163)
lotus flower
Chan master Yixuan (a.k.a. Linji)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)
Mazu Daoyi with a stick (for beating)
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)
Tibetan Dharma Wheel Turning

Tibetan Dharma Wheel Turning
Cover of Chan Master Sheng-yen's "Footprints in the Snow"
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)
Outline of a Chan monk meditating

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 traveled 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)
Cover of Guo Jun's book "Essential Chan Buddhism"
Essential Chan Buddhism
Chan Master Guo Jun

The breath is always there. It never leaves us. We abandon our breath, run away from our breath, ignore the breath. The breath is always there, waiting for us. The breath is always there, precisely as the present moment is always here. ... It is not easy to always come back to the breath, to come back to the present moment. Still, in reality, it is quite simple. We are born with the breath; we are born with Buddha nature. At the end of the day, it is our choice. We all have a choice to follow the path back to the breath and the present moment. It is a matter of whether we want to do it or not. (Essential Chan Buddhism, 10-11)
Do you breathe breath or does breath breathe you?
lotus flower

In Chan, wisdom is coming back to the present moment. It is in the present moment that we see, smell, taste, feel, and think clearly. Our sense faculties open up and clarify. We see beyond the surface, beyond the superficial. We see birth, old age, sickness, and death as illusionary. We see nothing has a solid nature. We peel the onion, layer by layer. Everything is temporary. What is real? When you’re in a good mood, everything is so pleasant. You delight in the songs of birds, the laughter of children. When you’re in a bad mood, these same delightful sounds grate on your nerves. Which of these responses is real? Both are, of course. And both are not! Heaven and hell are states of mind. They have no intrinsic reality. Everything is relative. If we really apprehend this, we are on our way to wisdom.
       A Chan disciple went to his teacher and wanted to attain purity of mind. The teacher asked him, “Who contaminated your mind and made it impure?” He heard his teacher’s words and became enlightened.
       On another occasion, a disciple went to the teacher and asked, “How do we attain freedom?”
       “Who bound you up?” the master asked.
(Essential Chan Buddhism, 30)
If there is no intrinsic reality and everything is relative,
then what is the point of Buddhist practice?
lotus flower
Buddhists engaged in prostration
I first did prostrations in my teenage years and started regular prostration practice when I was sixteen or seventeen. Prostrations have been an essential part of my practice ever since.
       There are benefits of prostrations that have nothing to do with a working out of karma or tapping into the beneficence of a supernatural power. Prostrations help our circulation. When you prostrate, blood flows to the head. After prostrations, your thinking sharpens. Going down to the floor stretches your spine, and the flow of chi improves. The slow movements of prostrations are mindful, and so you relax and your mind clears up.
       Westerners are suspicious of prostrations, which smacks to them of idol worship, which is distasteful at best. After all, you are bowing down before a statue. Not only bowing, but actually supplicating yourself fully on the floor. There’s a groveling Oriental obeisance to the posture that offends the egalitarian and individualistic Western sensibility.
       But from the Chan perspective, prostration is an art, a highly developed spiritual technology that is beautiful and profound. ...
Dharma Drum monks prostrating themselves
In our prostrations, by purifying our mind, we purify the world. We build the Pure Land. We touch the sick, the suffering, those who are lost in grief, frustration, and despair. We touch the dying. We touch everyone with wisdom and compassion. We connect all the life with humility, generosity, and respect. We touch the great earth. (Essential Chan Buddhism, 106-110)
How is the Chan practice of prostration
similar to and/or different from worshiping God?
Drawing of a woman meditating