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CH'AN: The Essence of All Buddhas

Lectures by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
Translated by the Editorial Committee of the
Buddhist Text Translation Society

the Wanderling

Who is mindful of the Buddha?

The phrase "Who is mindful of the Buddha" is like a sword. It is also like a broom. Someone may say, "Why is it called both a sword and a broom? Since it is a sword, it can't be a broom. Since it is a broom, it can't be a sword." It depends which end you use. One end is a sword and the other end is a broom. One end, the sword, which can slice through gold and cut through jade, cuts through your emotions and severs your love. Being able to cut off ignorance and afflictions makes it a sword. The broom end is like your mindfulness of "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" Just as each time you sweep the floor it gets a little cleaner, so too, sweeping with "who" sweeps away a lot of your lust. What the sword cuts through is lust and what the broom sweeps away is also lust. It's your thoughts of desire, your emotional love, and other such problems. You can use the sword to cut through all these unsolvable problems. As soon as you investigate "who?" the heavenly demons and externalists cannot do anything to you. There's no crack for them to slip through. That's because you are holding aloft the wisdom sword that subdues the ten great demonic armies. All the various demonic armies in this world will be conquered. None of the demons has any way to deal with your "who?" If you forget to be mindful of "who?" then there is a hole where the demons can wriggle their way in. That can happen because you put down your sword and give rise to ignorance.

When you investigate "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" things get vague. You keep on investigating, but you can't find out "who?" Unable to find the "who," you give rise to a "feeling of doubt." What is meant by a "feeling of doubt"? It's being unable to find out "who?" Sustained investigation of this word "who" for hours nonstop can bring you to the point that your breath ceases, your pulse stops, your thoughts come to a standstill, and you attain a profoundly Great Samadhi. With that kind of Samadhi, you are in Samadhi when you are walking; you are in Samadhi when you are sitting; you are in Samadhi when you are standing; and you are in Samadhi when you are lying down. You neither enter it nor leave it, and so it's called a profoundly Great Samadhi. At that time, above, there will be no heaven; below, there will be no earth; in between, there will be no people; and afar, there will be no objects. Absolutely everything will be empty. Even emptiness will not exist. When there isn't even any emptiness, where could the false thoughts and extraneous ideas be located? Where could lust be found? At that time, it's very easy to become Enlightened. It's very easy to return to the root and go back to the source, to understand your mind and see your nature. When you understand your mind and see your nature, nothing that happens presents any difficulties; there are no obstructions. Once you see your nature, you never worry.

Where Is the Original Face to Be Found?

From the Qing dynasty on, most people have investigated "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" Investigating the word "who" is the most important part. As long as you don't know, then it's still "who." If you know, then that's Enlightenment. You want to find out who it is who's mindful of the Buddha. If you say, "Oh!I am mindful of the Buddha!" If it is YOU who is mindful of the Buddha, then suppose you die and are cremated so that you no longer exist--then where have you gone? If it's you who is mindful of the Buddha, then you shouldn't die; but you will die, get cremated, and be gone.

There are many different meditation topics that can be used in investigating Chan. Some people investigate "Who was I before my mother bore me?" Others investigate the word "Nothing." "Nothing" means there isn't anything at all. Everything is nonexistent. Some investigate "Does a dog have the Buddha nature?" Whether or not a dog has the Buddha nature can be a topic too. Others investigate "dried turd." There are many different meditation topics. Whichever topic you respond to best is the one for you.

Carefully Investigate While Walking, Standing, Sitting, and Lying Down

Now we are having a Ch'an session. Concentration is of vital importance in a Ch'an session. Your body, mind, and thoughts must be concentrated. Here, your body must walk when it's time to walk, sit when it's time to sit, and lie down when it's time to lie down. Walking, sitting, and reclining, you must follow the rules. Your mind must not give rise to false thinking; then the mind can be concentrated. Your thoughts should be devoid of greed, devoid of hatred, and devoid of stupidity. Single-mindedly investigate "Who is mindful of the Buddha?"

Investigating is like using a drill to drill a hole. You drill and drill until you drill through the piece of wood. Once the drill penetrates, you can see through to the other side. That's what becoming Enlightened is like. Prior to penetrating, we are only doing the daily work of drilling. Prior to becoming Enlightened, we investigate "Who is mindful of the Buddha?"
Now we are putting in the work that it takes to become enlightened. During the period of working, you don't want to say, "Oh! This drill won't penetrate and make a hole." Then you don't want to drill any more. But if you don't drill, no hole will be made. You must drill the hole today, drill it tomorrow, and drill it the next day, drilling and drilling until your work is realized. After a time, you will penetrate. That penetration is Enlightenment. That means what you weren't clear about before, you will be clear about. What you didn't understand, you will understand.

What is this skill like? It's like a cat poised to catch a mouse. The cat waits beside the mouse hole. If the mouse comes out, the cat catches it with one swipe of its claws. Your investigation of "Who is mindful of the Buddha" is like a cat stalking a mouse. Your false thinking is the mouse, and the phrase "Who is mindful of the Buddha" is the cat. The cat is waiting to catch the mouse. That's what this analogy means.Investigation is also like a dragon guarding its pearl. A dragon is always protecting his dragon pearl. His attention never strays from it.

Again, investigation is like a hen brooding over her eggs. The hen is always concerned about her chicks, thinking, "My little chicks are going to hatch soon." She keeps brooding, "Ah! Hurry up! Hurry up! Little chicks, hurry up and hatch!" Every day she's there thinking about her chicks until they finally hatch. As it is said, "Egg-born come from thought."

When her thinking wins out, the chicks hatch. Once the chicks are hatched, the hen has succeeded. Our investigation of Chan is also like an old mother hen incubating her chicks. While the mother hen is brooding on the eggs, she is extremely hot! So hot she pants. And yet she can't bear to leave the nest. She has to brood until the chicks hatch. That's all there is to it!


When One Solves the Meditation Topic, A Clue Appears

The same principle applies when we investigate Ch'an. We must pay attention at all times and not have any discursive thoughts. As the saying goes,

When not a single thought arises, the entire substance manifests.

When the six senses suddenly move, one is covered by clouds.

When not a single thought arises, the vast functioning of the entire substance is seen. One's inherent wisdom manifests. When the six sense faculties--the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind--suddenly move, it is as if the sky were suddenly covered by clouds. When not a single thought arises, then "Inside there is no body or mind, and outside there is no world." When you reach that level in your meditation, your breath stops. Although you stop breathing, you are not dead. When your breath stops, not a single thought arises. But if you suddenly think, "Oh, my breath has stopped. It's gone!" Then it will come back. When you are devoid of thoughts, the breath stops; but as soon as you have a thought, the breath resumes. Actually, your breathing does not completely cease, or else you wouldn't be alive. Rather, an internal breathing begins to function, so you no longer need to rely on external breathing. This is known as turning the great Dharma wheel--singing the soundless song and turning the invisible Dharma wheel. However, you should not become attached to this state.

Cultivators alternately advance and retreat in their practice. We may be vigorous for a few days, but then, feeling that we aren't getting any benefit, we slack off. After being lazy for a while, we become vigorous again. In cultivation, we should follow the Middle Way and be neither too hasty nor too relaxed.

Go too fast and you'll trip; dally and you'll fall behind.

Never rush and never dally, and you'll get there right on time.

Don't be nervous and don't be lax. Don't go too fast means don't be nervous. Don't dally means don't be lazy. Enjoy developing your skill. Develop it to the point that you are free and at ease when walking, free and at ease when sitting, free and at ease when standing, and free and at ease when sleeping. Walking, standing, sitting and lying down, you have self-mastery. Self-mastery means that your skill is progressing. When your skill progresses, you will be able to truly investigate Chan. Then, even if you consider stopping, there will be no way to do so.

Walking, standing, sitting, and lying down, you won't lose track of "who?" But even though you won't lose track of "who?" you still will not recognize "who?" You want to become familiar with "who?" You can't let the "who?" be cut off. At all times and in all places you investigate Chan until you become one with it. When you become one with it, then "you eat each day but it is as if you hadn't eaten a single grain of rice." It's not that you don't eat, but that you are not attached to eating. You eat but it's as if nothing had happened. You wear clothing but you are not attached to it.

"You wear clothes but it is as if you hadn't put on a single thread." This means that whether you are walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, you forget everything. You forget about eating and wearing clothes, how much the more other matters. How much less of a problem will other matters be!

Smash the Black Barrel and Reveal the Source

SMASHING THE BLACK LACQUER BARREL refers to Enlightenment. Although the thought of investigating "who" is also a false thought, this one false thought is used to defeat all the other false thoughts. Investigation should be done in every moment; it is not that you investigate on the out-breath, and then don't investigate on the in-breath; or that you investigate on the in-breath and then not on the out-breath. No, counting your breaths is of no use because it creates a duality. It adds a head on top of a head--it is superficial. The true and proper method for investigating chan meditation is the method for entering deeply. Thus, our patriarchs investigated their meditation topic breathing in as well as breathing out; their one thought of investigation continued on forever without interruption.

Those who truly know how to work do not lose track of the topic "who?" Little by little they inquire into "who" until mind, intellect, and consciousness all vanish. The mind becomes empty; the body is also empty; the intellect is empty, and the consciousness is empty. When you strike up false thoughts, it is the sixth consciousness that they come from. The sixth consciousness causes you to strike up false thought, causes you to register pain, and causes you to be unable to bear any more. All of those are distortions of the sixth consciousness. If you are able to smash the mind, intellect and consciousness--if you investigate until you break through them, so that you can't be turned by such thoughts--then you are one who truly knows how to work. Not to mention gaining responses every day in your application of effort, if you gain a response for even the space of a thought, you can open your wisdom, which is another way of saying you can become Enlightened.

There's an old proverb that goes,

If someone sits quietly for an instant,
Then that is better than building pagodas made
of the seven jewels in number like the Ganges' sands.

If you can genuinely enter Samadhi--stay quiet--for an instant, for just a moment in time, then that in itself can eradicate infinite kalpas of offenses that bind us to birth and death.

Those who know how to practice are always in Samadhi, while those who don't are constantly in the midst of falseness. Within Samadhi, one produces wisdom, while within falseness one's stupidity increases. How can one obtain Samadhi? One must return the false to the true. We, however, are ever eager to pursue false conditions and unwilling to return to a state of Samadhi. That's why we constantly indulge in discursive thoughts and cannot return to the truth. As a result, the truth becomes false. If you didn't have so many discursive thoughts, but instead reflected within at all times and worked on your own nature, you would be able to return to the truth. Our Ch'an session is also for the purpose of turning the false back into the truth, getting rid of the false and keeping the truth. That's why we have set everything aside to come here to walk and sit. Walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, we must not be apart from "this." To separate from this is a mistake. "This" is just the meditation topic, which we must always bring to mind.

So It Is, So It Is, Contemplate at Ease

I will explain to you about the period of walking. If you know how to walk, you won't race. That is not walking. Nor is that to say that a slow pace is walking. How should you do it? You should be very orderly and yet at ease. During the walks you should still be investigating "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" We first walk for about fifteen to twenty minutes, and then run. The runs should be once or twice around the hall--three times at most--and then the signal to stop should be given. The runs cannot last too long. If the runs last too long, people get tired and winded, and then they won't be able to apply their effort. Just run for one or two laps, three at most. Run until you feel that people are just beginning to get warm. As soon as the body heat rises, hit the fish to stop the run. Then start the sitting period. Once the circulation of blood and qi (energy) has come alive, the sit should begin.

While sitting, you must be solid and strong so that the strength of your sitting is equal to the best. You have to sit for a long time, and then you will attain Dhyana. In sitting, your mind should be calm, and your breath tranquil. Sit upright like a great bell, your eyes contemplating your nose, your nose contemplating your mouth, and your mouth contemplating the mind at all times. Don't lean to the front, back, left or right. Full lotus is the best posture, and half lotus (with your left foot over your right thigh) is the second best. If you cannot bear that, then you can sit however you like. When sitting, you should be in a state of unmoving suchness and constant clarity. Curl the tip of your tongue upwards so it touches the roof of your mouth, thus connecting the ren and du energy channels. Once these channels connect, your blood and energy will circulate well and you will feel very comfortable. If you have saliva, you can swallow it down. Your saliva is like sweet dew nourishing your Bodhi sprouts.

After sitting for a while, you will begin to feel a sensation of growing bliss. It begins in your belly and spreads throughout your body. After a period of time, in which you experience further changes in your body's "chemical factory," you reach a level where there will be a sensation on the crown of your head, which seems to be there and yet not there. It is invisible and intangible, just a feeling, but it seems to be kind of an inconceivable state. It is followed by a sensation on your head that becomes very hard to bear, and yet you must bear it. It feels as if a hole were being drilled into your skull. If you can endure the discomfort, then after a while the hole will be drilled all the way through, and you will be able to go out the top of your head, like a bird happily flying out from its cage. This is this level you are the number one hero, unsurpassed in the world.

Good Indeed, Good Indeed, Awakening to the "Who".

In the course of meditation, one may attain to the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Dhyanas. Prior to attaining the First Dhyana, one first attains a state of lightness and ease, which is quite comfortable and enjoyable. When you attain this state of being filled with Dharma bliss, you can go without food and not feel hungry, go without sleep and not feel tired, and even go naked and not feel cold. This is a state attained in the initial stages of cultivation. Whether you are sitting or walking, you feel as if you have no self. You don't know where your ego went.

After the state of lightness and ease, you enter the Samadhi of the First Dhyana. At that time, the self is empty and your pulse appears to stop. You pervade empty space and the Dharma Realm, and one or two hours of sitting seem to go by in only a second's time. However, you should not think of yourself as extraordinary; you have only gotten a tiny taste of Samadhi in this initial stage of practice. Your pulse has stopped, and the next step is that your breath stops. When external breathing ceases and you no longer breathe through your nose, an internal "true" breathing begins to function. At that point, you no longer need to rely on external breathing. As you continue to progress in your practice, your thoughts will cease. When not a single thought arises and all discursive thoughts are gone--emptied--you become one with Nature. Although thoughts are said to cease in this third stage, you actually still have a thought of coarse ignorance.

In the fourth stage, thoughts are truly ended; all thoughts are renounced. This state of meditation is the Fourth Dhyana, which is still subject to outflows. You have neither ended birth and death nor realized any fruition (of sagehood). To reach the level of a First Stage Arhat, one has to cut off eighty-one grades of view delusions. View delusions occur when one gives rise to greed and desire when confronted by states. One is confused by what one sees. First Stage Arhats are called Stream-Enterers, for they enter the flow of the Dharma nature of Sages and go against the stream of the six sense objects of ordinary beings. Sages of the first fruition do not enter into forms, sounds, smells, tastes, objects of touch, or dharmas. Forms cannot move them; sounds cannot move them; smells cannot move them; flavors cannot move them; touches cannot move them; and mental dharmas cannot move them. They are not affected by the states of the six defiling objects. That's at the level of the First Stage of Arhatship. Right now, we have not even reached the First Dhyana in our meditation. None of us have felt our pulses stop beating.

If you haven't attained these states, you should work hard in every minute and second; it's important not to waste time. It's best to sit in full lotus. If you cannot, then you can sit in half lotus. If full lotus and half lotus are both too difficult, then simply sit casually. Cultivation is a matter of the mind, not the legs. If you can be free of discursive thoughts, then you can practice in any posture at all. If your mind is filled with discursive thoughts, then you won't succeed in your practice no matter how you sit. Practice consists of cultivating the mind and nurturing the nature. You must constantly observe your discursive thoughts to see what kind of thoughts are predominant. Are the majority of your thoughts concerning greed and desire? Do your thoughts contain more anger and rage than anything else? Does stupidity dominate your thinking? Reflect inwardly and examine yourself. If you can purify your mind of these discursive thoughts, you are having a response in your work. Whether you sit in full lotus, in half lotus, or casually, the essential thing is to get rid of discursive thoughts so that genuine wisdom can appear. As long as the false is not ended, the true will not manifest. In cultivating we work on the mind-ground. That is called the Mind Ground Dharma door: causing the mind to become pure. If you can be pure for one instant, you are on Magic Mountain in that one instant. If you can be pure at all times, you are always on Magic Mountain. Regardless of whether you recite the Buddha's name, hold mantras, keep the precepts, expound the teachings, or sit in Ch'an meditation, the goal is to focus the mind on a single point, to cast out the false and retain the true. At all times, look within yourself and recognize your original face.

That is the method to use at the initial stages of practice.

With the Nature Bright and Aware, There Is Nothing at All.

In investigating Ch'an, one should not want states to arise. We don't want there to be anything, not even emptiness. Even emptiness is emptied, and yet one feels neither fear nor joy. If you experience fear, then you will be vulnerable to demons. If you experience happiness, then a demon of happiness will come. Look at the fifty skandha demons, which are discussed in the Shurangama Sutra. All of those states could be encountered when meditating. If you are clear about those states, then you will not be turned by any state that you may see. There is a saying, "If the Buddha comes, smash him. If a demon comes, beat him away." If a Buddha comes, don't become attached to that Buddha. If a demon comes, don't become attracted to that demon. Do not have any attachments. Don't think: "Wow! A Buddha has come!" and be overjoyed about it, because that's not going about it the proper way. The presence of fear also indicates not going about it the proper way; and the presence of any like or dislike indicates not going about it the proper way. Therefore, you must be able to remain "thus thus unmoving" in stillness; you must remain unmoved no matter what state you encounter so that you do not give rise to discriminations about it and you do not pursue it. If a state appears, let it be. If no state appears, don't look for any. If you perceive a state, don't be turned by it. From limitless kalpas past until the present, we have accumulated all kinds of states of mind within the field of our eighth consciousness. Sitting quietly allows these states to come forth. By analogy, if you keep stirring muddy water, it will not be clear. But if you set the water somewhere and don't disturb it, then all the mud and sediment will sink to the bottom and the water will become clear. It's the same with you. Once you sit quietly, your mind will become clear. See: Shikantaza

The mind's clarity is like that of water in which the moon can reflect.
The intellect in Samadhi is like a cloudless sky.

When your mind is pure, then it's like water that reflects the moon. And so pay no attention to whether a state of mind is true or false. Working hard is true. However, you shouldn't be like people who don't understand what's happening, and say, "Ah! This is not good. You are possessed by a demon." In fact it is because you've worked hard that you encounter such a state. If you hadn't worked hard, nothing at all would happen. And so do not be afraid. True understanding is not being attached to anything. Don't be attached to anything at all.

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