Understanding Chan Buddhism (Part 3)

Understanding Chan Buddhism (Part 3)

Chan and Dhyana

Though Chan is the Chinese transliteration of Dhyana in Sanskrit, it is not of the same context as Dhyana in its own sense. Dhyana in Sanskrit means high bliss states (or called Samadhi) achieved through the processes of meditation (known as Samatha and Vipassana). Though Chan is always related to meditation, however, it is different from the meditation in other sects, such as Tien Tai, Pure Land, Cheng Yen, etc.

The Chinese Chan is generally referred to as the Patriarchal Chan [祖師禪] while all other meditations, including Dhyana as stipulated in the Sutras are called Tathagata Chan [如來禪].

Though it is common to all kinds of meditation that the control of mind or the cessation of conceptual thought is the starting point, and is a means of entering Samadhi, the Patriarchal Chan has its unique purpose of passing beyond the intellect, revealing the inner potentiality or inherent intuition, seeing one’s self-nature and attaining final enlightenment.

Features of Patriarchal Chan

The features of Patriarchal Chan can be summarized in the following verse by the Patriarch:

Outside teaching, apart from tradition.教外別傳

Not found in words and letters.不立文字

Pointing directly to human mind.直指人心

Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.見性成佛

AwakeningThe Patriarchal Chan is typified by its rejection of secondhand knowledge, including the verbalization in words and letters, just like a person who tries to describe the taste of banana to one who has no idea of what a banana is. Moreover, enlightenment or awakening cannot be achieved by the senses, the feelings or the process of thought. It can only be known through the faculty of intuition, the power inherent in everybody’s mind of direct, immediate perception of Reality. The practitioner is required to expel all concurrent causes, and not to give rise to a single thought, so that he can reveal this inherent intuition and develop it before any reasoning of mind. The experience of awakening can be defined and verbalized because it takes place beyond the limits of concept and out of any time frame, and it is in a state of non-duality.

Awakening is an important aim to be achieved in the practice of Chan. Awakening is called “Wu” [悟] in Chinese, and Satori in Japanese.

It was said that there were 18 major ‘Wu’s and many minor ones before perfect enlightenment. Awakening can be gradual [漸悟] or sudden [頓悟]. The time taken to attain ‘Wu’ depends on the sharpness [利根] and the dullness [鈍根] of the practitioners. However, final enlightenment is generally attained in a finger-snap, so called ‘sudden enlightenment’. Most people regard Chan Buddhism as subtlism, rather than gradualism.

Moreover, Chan is also regarded as the enlightenment attained by one’s own power [自力], i.e. Jiriki in Sanskrit, which is contrary to relying on the power of other beings [他力], i.e. Tariki in Sanskrit, such as Amitabha Buddha in Pure Land sect.

Thus, Chan is said to be suitable for those who are sharp with superior roots, and not for ordinary beings.

Direct Pointing at the Mind

It was supposed to be the most effective way to attain enlightenment in Chan sect.

It was particularly suitable for sharp people of superior root, as their minds were less disturbed by worldly matters, thus always at ease. They would be easily awakened by just a few words. The Chan masters used to point at the mind, so that their followers could eradicate all attachment, not only to the phenomenal world around them, but also to the subtle view of self [我] and things/Dharma [法]. As a result, their disciples immediately understood the ultimate truth by the dialogues between the masters and their followers.

In Chan sect, it is important to realize the sameness of noumenal and phenomenal, i.e. the oneness of all. Even this ‘Dharma’ is but an integral part of our self-nature. Thus, all traces of Dharmas are eradicated so as to reveal the absolute, which is neither Dharma nor non-Dharma, and thus beyond all dualisms.

The Forty Transmission Gathas were generally used in Chan sect for the practice of direct pointing at the mind. These Gathas are recorded in the book called The Transmission of Lamp [傳燈錄]. These Gathas, which are related to the mind Dharmas, were composed by the 7 ancient Buddhas, the 27 Patriarchs in India and the 6 Patriarchs in China,

For instance, Shakyamuni Buddha said in his Gatha when transmitting the Dharma to Mahakasyapa,

The Dharma’s fundamental Dharma has no Dharma,
The Dharma of No-Dharma is Dharma too,
Now that the Dharma of No-Dharma is transmitted,
Has there ever been a Dharma.

Kung An

After the Sixth Patriarch, simple words and discourses became less effective in stimulating the Chan practitioners to reveal their true mind. Some other techniques were devised, such as Kung An [公案] (or Koan in Japan), Hua Tou [話頭]. These are the dialogues between the masters and their followers in question-and-answer about the ultimate truth, in which all the viewpoints are eventually negated leading the final enlightenment.

Kung An (or Koan in Japanese translation) literally means ‘the public document / file / case / record. It is a special term in Chan Buddhism, representing a case study, in which some words or phrases, gestures or dialogues, including shouts, laughs, etc. are used to point directly at the mind. Each Kung An is an expression of a person’s actual experience directly from personal attainment. Generally, answer or solution to Kung An cannot be obtained by intellect.

To work upon a Kung An, the practitioners are required to concentrate and hold their attention to the given Kung An without ‘thinking’ of it while a higher faculty takes over. It is used as an exercise for breaking through the limitations of thought and developing the intuition, thereby attaining a flash of awareness beyond duality.

The techniques was developed by one of the great Chan master Ma Tsu [馬祖].

Here’s an example of Kung An ‘Wu’ [無], i.e. ‘No’ or ‘Nothing’ in English.

A monk asked Chao Chou [趙州], “Does a dog possess the Buddha-nature?”
Chao Chou replied, “Wu!”

Upon hearing, the monk wondered, “The Buddha said that all beings possessed the Buddha-nature, why did the enlightened Master say that the dog did not have it?”

By focusing on this question all days and nights without losing his grip of it, the monk finally achieved singlesness of mind, later attained enlightenment.

Hua Tou

Hua Tou literally means ‘word’s head’. ‘Word’ is a mental word or thought, which stirs the mind. Thus Hua Tou is the mind before it is stirred by a thought. That is, the mind which is in its still condition.

This technique consists of ‘closing’ all the six sense organs so as to isolate them from contacting with sense objects. The practitioners are required to concentrate on the mind itself, or by ‘turning towards the light to shine upon the self’.

The popular examples of Hua Tou are:

” Who is repeating Budha’s name?”
“Before you were born, what was your real face?”
“All things are returnable to One, to what is (that) One returnable?”

When one looks into a Hua Tou, the most important thing is to give a doubt, i,e, I Ching [疑情] in Chinese. For instance, if you look into the Hua Tou “Who is repeating the Buddha’s name?”, you should pay attention to the word “Who”, the other words serving to give a general idea of the whole sentence.


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