Chan Sessions Are for
Seeking Enlightenment in a Limited Time
by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
You must plant your feet on solid ground, and diligently work at meditation. Only when you attain true skill will it count!
The Chan session starts today, and I hope everyone will work diligently and not pass up this marvelous opportunity to become enlightened.
A Chan session is held for the purpose of seeking to become enlightened in a fixed period of time. So don’t sit on the meditation bench and indulge in idle thinking; that would not do justice to your purpose in attending the Chan session. What kinds of idle thoughts might you have? Delusive thoughts come in all varieties, but in general they are no more than flights of fancy and wishful thinking. Some people have the idle thought: “I hope I can get enlightened and attain great wisdom in this session. After I’m enlightened, I’ll publicize it to the world, and everyone will know I am an enlightened person and treat me with great respect.”
All of you should consider this: can a person who thinks like that get enlightened? I emphatically declare that it’s impossible. Why? As soon as that person sits on the meditation bench, his idle thoughts come in droves, and if he’s not idly thinking about seeking fame, he’s idly thinking about how to make a profit. How can a person who is spun around by fame and profit become enlightened?
Some people have this idle thought: “In this Chan session, I definitely have to get enlightened. I have to be the first person to get enlightened in this session. I’ll be the one and only enlightened person, and no one else will get enlightened. How glorious that would be!” Without even getting close to being enlightened, he feigns it and announces everywhere that he is enlightened. He cheats people because he wants them to show him special favor. His plan is to “pass off fish-eyes as pearls.” But his ideas are so childish that people will only despise and laugh at him. Hopefully no one will entertain such ideas. Rather, we should plant our feet firmly on the ground and apply our efforts in investigating Chan, so that we can attain real skill that counts!
Other people have this kind of idle thought: “I want to get enlightened, so people will make offerings to me. Then I can build a big temple, be the Dharma host of the area, and have lots of followers who come and make offerings. I’ll be a great Dharma Master known throughout the world, and everyone will treat me as a high-class Dharma Master.” However, you must know that if you really aren’t as proficient and knowledgeable as you make out to be, and you receive people’s offerings, your conscience will not rest easy.
When sitting in Chan, make sure your posture is correct. A correct posture benefits both body and mind. Without it, sitting in Chan loses its meaning. When you sit in meditation, first relax the body and mind. Don’t tense up. It would be ideal to sit in full lotus, which is the basic posture.
To sit in full lotus, first put the left foot over the right thigh, and then move the right foot over the left leg. This is also called the vajra position, which means it is firm and unmoving. All the Buddhas of the past attained Buddhahood by sitting in the vajra position. In this sitting posture, one can subdue the demons from the heavens and counter those of other religions. When they see you in this position, they surrender and retreat, afraid to disturb you.
Once you are sitting in lotus posture, your eyes should contemplate your nose, and not look left and right.
The nose contemplates the mouth;
The mouth contemplates the heart.
This way, you can gather in the body and mind. The mind is like a monkey or a wild horse, and you must tie it up so it won’t run away. It is said,
When one is concentrated,
there is an efficacious result.
When one is scattered, there is nothing.
You should sit properly, with the back straight and the head up. Don’t lean forwards, backwards, or to the left or right. Sit firm and steady like a large bell, not swaying or moving. Don’t be like the bell clapper which swings back and forth. Full lotus is the proper posture for sitting in Chan.
Beginning Chan meditators who are not used to it may experience pain in their legs and soreness in the back. Don’t worry. Just grit your teeth and be patient for a while, and these sensations will naturally subside. It is said, “With long sitting, there is Chan.” You will attain the flavor of Chan.
What is the flavor of Chan? You attain the bliss of Chan samadhi, and taste the flavor of light ease. This flavor is inexhaustibly subtle and wonderful, inconceivable and indescribable. Only those who have experienced it will understand and know, just as a person who drinks the water will know its temperature. This can only be experienced by the mind, and cannot be communicated by mouth. If you want to know if the flavor of Chan is sweet or bitter, work hard at investigating Chan, and when you reach a certain stage, you will discover the flavor yourself! So, you must investigate! Investigate until “stones peep out from the receding water” (the truth is brought to light), and then you’ll know the flavor of Chan.
Chan must be investigated, not discussed. That’s why the Chan School is not based on language. Transmitted outside the teaching, this Dharma-door points directly to the mind, so that one sees the nature and attains Buddhahood.
When Chan cultivators have achieved a certain amount of skill in their investigation, they definitely will not lose their temper or argue with people, because they have reached the state of the samadhi of non-contention. Nor will they seek fame or gain, because they will regard wealth and honor as being like dew, and fame and position like frost, disappearing in an instant. Real cultivators keep their distance from fame and gain, and don’t let their minds get influenced by them.
If you want to evaluate a person’s cultivation, see if his every move is motivated by the desire for fame and profit. Is he someone who seeks fame, and gets mad when he cannot obtain it? Does he lose his temper if his pursuit of profit is frustrated? Does the fire of his ignorance and his tiger-like spirit make him the toughest one around? If so, then you know without asking that this person is after fame and profit.
When the Emperor Qianlung of the Qing Dynasty went to Gold Mountain Chan Monastery in Zhenjiang to view the scenery of the Yangtze River, he asked Chan Master Faqing, “How many boats come and go on the Yangtze in one day?” The Chan Master replied, “Only two boats.” Qianlung was puzzled, and asked him, “How do you know there are only two boats?” The Chan Master said, “One boat is out for fame, and the other boat is out for profit.”
From this, we know that anyone who takes a boat is either out for fame or for profit. What they don’t know is that those who seek fame die for fame and those who seek profit die for profit. In the end, they go to see King Yama empty-handed. As it is said,
You can’t bring anything with you.
Only your karma will follow you.
If a cultivator has no temper, and can endure insult and suffering, he can be a Dharma vessel and a pillar of Buddhism who can help Buddhism to expand and prosper. But if he likes to lose his temper all the time, he will only harm Buddhism and be the black sheep of Buddhism.
Buddhism has just planted the seeds of Bodhi in the pure soil of the West, and now they have already sprouted and put forth tender shoots. I hope everyone will be a good gardener and diligently water them and fertilize them often, so that they thrive joyously and grow more flourishing every day. Then eventually the Bodhi blossoms will open and bear the fruit of Bodhi.
The four-fold assembly of residents at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas should be especially cautious in their speech. Don’t talk recklessly, and don’t gossip about the faults of others. The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas is a pure and holy place for cultivation, and will not tolerate heterodox teachings. Right in front of the ten thousand Buddhas, how can people speak so carelessly? Take heed!
Sickness enters through the mouth;
Calamity comes out of the mouth.
This familiar adage holds a lot of principle. We should think thrice before speaking, to avoid making mistakes in cause and effect. Not only are we legally responsible for what we say, we must also undergo the retribution according to the law of cause and effect.
Buddhism is a religion which teaches selflessness, so it prohibits fortune-telling, whether by looking at facial features or hexagrams. Even less should we believe in geomancy. Since these skills go against the Buddhadharma and oppose the Way, their propagation is curtailed. If you have faith in these dharmas, you still have a notion of self. You will think of things as being “mine” and always be thinking on behalf of “myself.” But considering only yourself and no one else does not accord with the Buddhadharma.
Buddhism is a religion which teaches people not to contend, not to be greedy, not to seek, not to be selfish, not to pursue personal benefit, and not to tell lies. Geomancers, on the other hand, tell people to contend, to seek, to be selfish, and to pursue personal benefit. They may even lie by telling people they will strike it rich or be promoted to a high rank in the next hundred days. Greedy people believe their words. But before they strike it rich, they first have to make a donation to the geomancer as a token of appreciation. The geomancers might as well tell people to rob a bank and get rich instantly, without having to wait a hundred days.
Moreover, if the geomancer really knows of some favorable geomantic features conducive to striking it rich or getting a big promotion, why wouldn’t he use them himself? Why would he want to wait for you to use them? That makes no sense! I hope intelligent people will not let themselves be swindled by superstition or cheated by these old crooks.
Doctors, diviners, astrologists, and physiognomists belong to one of the five types of livelihoods which are improper (for left-home people). Doctors treat sicknesses, diviners forecast good and ill, astrologers tell fortunes by looking at the stars, and physiognomists look at facial features to predict whether one’s life will be smooth or difficult. These are all superstitions. We should understand that “human determination can overcome fate.”
Cultivators who have renounced the home-life are not afraid of the great matter of birth and death; how much the less are these small matters worth their interest. People who leave the home-life can transcend their fate.
They transcend the three realms and
are no longer in the five elements.
Only people who are strongly attached to the world believe in such things as horoscopes and geomancy. We should know that a person’s destiny is the result of his karma. We shouldn’t let our temperament restrict us, or let our physical desires obscure our purpose. Instead, we ought to create our own destiny and take control of our destiny. We can change our destiny. If you do many meritorious and virtuous deeds, hardships will transform into auspiciousness. There is a saying,
Just practice good deeds,
And don’t ask about the future.
Now as we attend the Chan session, we are establishing a new life. Get rid of superstition, and believe in what’s proper. Don’t just repeat what you hear and go around spreading lies. Don’t blindly follow behind others─that would be a great mistake. You must have the Dharma-selecting Eye so that you can tell right from wrong, understand what’s good and what’s evil, and distinguish clearly between black and white. Then you won’t be turned upside-down in confusion.
Those who investigate Chan can be the masters of their own birth and death. They can come and go freely without any restriction. As it is said,
Even Old Man Yama has no control over you. He cannot touch you! Why not? Because you’ve already transcended the Three Realms.
What is meant by being free to come and go? It is the freedom to be born and die. If you want to live, you can live; if you want to die, you can die, as your heart desires. But take note─this kind of death doesn’t mean committing suicide or taking poison.
Our body is like a house, and if we want to go out and travel, we are free to go wherever we want. If we wish, we can have a hundred million transformation bodies to teach living beings throughout empty space and the Dharma Realm. If we don’t wish to travel, we can stay in the house and no one will disturb us. We should know that everything in empty space and in the Dharma Realm is included within the Dharma-body. Nothing can go outside the Dharma-body.
All of you have gone to a lot of trouble to come attend the Chan session, and to work non-stop day and night, because you hope to gain freedom and security over birth and death, to control your own life, and to be your own master. That is truly the state of freedom over birth and death.
In investigating Chan, when you reach the state of not knowing that there is the sky above, the earth below, and people in between, and you become one with empty space, there is some hope for enlightenment. Walking and sitting, sitting and walking─these are the key for opening our wisdom.
Investigate “Who is mindful of the Buddha?” Which person is mindful of the Buddha? Who is sitting in meditation? Which person is sitting in meditation? Who is the one eating? Who is the one sleeping? We must search for that person. To search, we must investigate. When we investigate to the point that the mountains disappear and the waters vanish, all we have to do is turn around and we’ll be enlightened. There is a saying,
When the mountains disappear and the waters vanish,
you doubt there is a road ahead.
Beyond the dark willows and the bright flowers is another village.
It is also said,
If you can climb to the top of a hundred-foot pole and then take another step,
The worlds in the ten directions will appear in their entirety.
If you don’t investigate Chan and sit in meditation, where do you come from when you are born? Where will you go when you die? You don’t know. Not knowing, you are born in a muddle and you die in a muddle, and you spend your whole life the same way. How pitiful!
If you work hard at investigating Chan, then when you get enlightened you will recognize your original face before your parents gave birth to you. You will suddenly fathom everything; you will know all the internal and external details and general and subtle aspects of all the myriad phenomena, and you will thoroughly comprehend the total functioning of the mind. Having attained the state of great creation and great transformation, you will eventually accomplish the Buddha fruition and attain the highest proper, equal, right enlightenment. Laozi once said,
When all the world knows what is fine,
then what is bad already exists.
When they know what is good,
then what is not good already exists.
The people of the world all know that it is good to do fine, wholesome deeds, but when it comes time to do them, they are no longer fine. Everyone says it’s right to do good deeds, but when states come, they can’t pass the test. Confused by states, they do evil deeds instead of good ones.
Students of the Buddhadharma know the Four Boundless Minds─kindness, compassion, joy, and giving─are fundamental to the practice of the Bodhisattva path, yet they don’t practice them. What use is it if you just understand the theory? Every day you study the Six Perfections, but when the situation comes, you don’t practice giving, you don’t hold the precepts, you aren’t patient, you aren’t vigorous, you don’t cultivate Chan samadhi, and you don’t use wisdom. Tell me, what use is that?
1. Giving: You are supposed to give wealth to others, but when you’re in a situation to do so, you don’t give. On the contrary, you demand that others give to you, the more the better. “I won’t give you anything, but you should give me something. I should gain the advantage, not take a loss.” That’s the attitude everyone has.
2. Holding Precepts: The whole world knows that holding precepts means holding precepts, but when states come, people break the precepts instead of holding them. Holding the precepts means not letting one’s mind be moved. No matter what state you meet, your mind does not move. Even when Mount Tai has a landslide, you are not startled. When a beautiful woman passes in front of you, you are not affected. With that kind of samadhi, you can turn states around. Whether the state is good or bad, pleasant or adverse, you remain calm and composed. When you don’t give rise to discriminations, the wind calms down and the waves naturally subside.
3. Patience: You have to patiently endure the things which don’t turn out the way you wish them to. This is a test. If you pass, then you have jumped over the hurdle. If you fail, then you haven’t made it over the hurdle. Although we all know that patience can take us to the other shore, when we meet a difficult state, we cannot be patient. Then the fire of ignorance blazes up and burns away all the merit and virtue we accumulated over the years.
4. Vigor: Attending the Chan session is being vigorous. Everybody would like to be vigorous, but when the time comes, you aren’t vigorous. Trying to be lazy and take a break, you slack off in your cultivation and run outside to make some tea. Or maybe you go to the restroom or to the kitchen to drink tea─these are all excuses to waste time. Before the session started, you say, “I’m going to work really hard in this Chan session.” But after the session starts, you don’t act that way. You overturn all your former resolves. You deliberately break them. You know investigating Chan is good, but you still want to be lazy. How should we deal with such a contradictory mind? Anyone who doesn’t abide by the rules of the Chan Hall will be beaten with the stick─bam! bam! bam!─until they get enlightened.
5. Chan Samadhi: Now you are investigating Chan, and you should make full use of the time to apply effort. Why are you attending the Chan session? It is because you want to concentrate your mind until there are no more idle thoughts, so that your wisdom can manifest. This is known as the “liberation of wisdom,” and in this Dharma-door you aim for achievement in a limited time.
6. Wisdom: Wisdom enables you to reach the other shore and end birth and death. But if a person gets lazy right at the point when his wisdom is about to come forth, he’ll miss the chance to become enlightened. In the investigation of Chan, you must apply effort in every minute and every second, because you don’t know which particular instant you might get enlightened. Someone is thinking, “I don’t want to have wisdom; my stupidity is just fine. If I don’t understand anything, so be it!” You are just trying to fool yourself. When it’s time to die, you’ll realize you’ve wasted your whole life, but by that time it’s too late for regret.
Buddhism is just beginning in this country (United States), and needs to have true cultivators, people who really practice. We must cultivate by concentrating single-mindedly; we must cultivate by changing our faults and renewing ourselves; we must cultivate by smashing through our bad habits and being a good model for others. If we can do that, Buddhism is sure to have a bright future. But if at the start there aren’t any true cultivators who can serve as good models, and no one makes a great resolve for Bodhi, Buddhism will not be able to prosper in the West. So the prosperity or failure of Buddhism is a great burden which all of you young people must bear.
Guo Zhen (Heng Sure) and Guo Ting (Heng Chau), who are now sincerely cultivating on a “three steps, one bow” pilgrimage, are the trailblazing pioneers of Buddhism. They take three steps and bow down on the road, not seeking blessings for themselves, but peace for the world. For more than two years, they have endured hunger, thirst, cold, heat, wind and rain. This kind of bitter cultivation is not something most people can do. They endure what others cannot endure, yield what others cannot yield, eat what others cannot eat, and wear what others cannot wear.
Even in the wind and rain, they never miss a bow. In spite of the heat, cold, hunger, and thirst, they never stop to rest. Every day they do the morning and evening ceremonies as usual, not allowing themselves to be lax at any moment. The reason they are so energetic is because they wish to spread Buddhism and make it flourish all over the world. These two cultivators are working so arduously, not out of greed for fame or profit, but because they feel personally responsible for propagating Buddhism. Their spirit is truly commendable, and should be encouraged.
All of you should strive to be like these “three steps, one bow” cultivators. When you see their example, you should ask yourself, “What have I contributed to Buddhism? Do I do everything for my own sake, or for the sake of Buddhism?” If everything I do is for my own sake, I ought to be greatly ashamed and immediately correct my improper behavior. If it is for Buddhism, I should work even harder, and make a determined effort to propagate and support Buddhism. I should earnestly make the resolve to seek Bodhi, and practice the Bodhisattva Way without any expectations or desires. In everything I do, I should make the peace and happiness of others my top priority, and not scheme for my own benefit. That’s the true spirit of a Bodhisattva.
You are walking and sitting, sitting and walking, and you think it’s very grueling, but it’s much more comfortable than the toil of bowing every three steps. You should deeply realize this, and not let this opportunity go by in vain. If those two cultivators hadn’t made the Bodhi resolve to practice the Bodhisattva Way, they would find it impossible to persist and bow to the very end.
While in the Chan Hall, don’t entertain any idle thoughts. If you do, then although your body is in the hall, your mind is out sightseeing in the world. Those reckless and confused thoughts will affect your resolve to cultivate. By all means, don’t waste time. Use your time well and draw closer to enlightenment. If you prepare yourself in this way, you won’t be sorry. But if you don’t, it’s all just empty words.