Chan: The Essence
of All Buddhas

Lectures by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua

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 Chan 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 Chan, 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.

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.

Wisdom Pervasively Illumines Innate Truth

Now we want to develop wisdom, and in order to do so, we must first go through some suffering. We must be smelted by the fire. Suppose you were a lump of gold, you would have to be smelted to find out if you were true gold or fool's gold. If you were fool's gold, then you would be burned up. If you really were gold, well, true gold withstands the foundry's fire. Real gold is not afraid of fire. If you have ten ounces of true gold, it remains ten ounces no matter how much you smelt it. If you start with ten ounces of fool's gold, then there may only be one ounce left after it goes through the fire.

Now we are here in this foundry being forged into indestructible vajra bodies. Once you have a vajra body, you won't have to fear atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs, or nuclear weapons of any kind. Why do we experience fear? Because we can be destroyed! Absolutely nothing can destroy your potentially vajra indestructible body, but you must first endure some suffering.

Some people say, "It's too much pain and suffering. I can't take it!" Who perceives the pain and suffering? "I perceive it," you say. And just who are you? "I am just this body," you reply. If your body is you, then what about when you die? Where is your body then? If someone hits your body or scolds it then, it will be able to bear it. It will tolerate all sorts of suffering without any difficulty. You say, "That's because I'll be dead, so there won't be any problems." Well, why don't you just play dead right now?

If a person wants to avoid death,
He must first act like a living dead person.

If you don't want to die, you first have to try out dying. "You mean commit suicide?" you ask. No, I mean act like a dead person. If you regard everything from the perspective of a dead person, you will no longer contend, or be greedy, hateful, or stupid.

All the patriarchs, Bodhisattvas, and Buddhas through the ages succeeded by means of this method. All Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and patriarchs were born from this Dharma door. So don't be afraid of difficulty and suffering now. Cultivate well. Diligently apply yourselves to your practice. Cast out all discursive thoughts. Don't be lazy or try to sneak off to rest.

As long as you have a breath left, use it to walk and sit in meditation. We borrow the false to cultivate the true. The harder it is, the more you should be determined to overcome the difficulty. Anyone can do easy things. We want to do difficult things that others cannot do; we want to bear what others cannot bear. Only with such vigor and courage can we accomplish true wisdom. That's what's meant by forging indestructible vajra bodies in the red-hot furnace. After this kind of training, your bodies will be healthy and your wisdom will come forth.

Chan meditation disciplines both the body and the mind. The body is restrained from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct; and the mind is restrained from greed, anger, and stupidity. In this way, we diligently cultivate precepts, samadhi, and wisdom and extinguish greed, anger, and stupidity. It is virtually impossible to commit offenses in the Chan hall.

Although we may have idle thoughts, we will not act upon them. Restrained from killing, stealing, and lust, the body is purified of its bad habits. Once the body is disciplined and the mind is pure and concentrated, we can break through ignorance and regain our inherent wisdom. However, due to attachments to the body, the ego, and possessions, it is not easy to return to the origin and to renounce the deviant for the proper; it's difficult to put everything down. Only with good roots can we relinquish all attachments to self and to dharmas.

If we can see the body as empty, we destroy the attachment to self. If the mind attains samadhi, the attachment to dharmas will be gone. With no attachments to self or dharmas, we can transcend the material plane and be liberated from the limitations of our inherent disposition and from our materialistic desires.

Liberation is simply the absence of attachments. Nevertheless, this is not easy to accomplish. If we can really have no attachments to self or others, our Dharma body will pervasively fill space and the Dharma Realm. What a pity none of us can manage to do that. Who knows how many great eons it will be before we attain that kind of state?

In the course of cultivation, we must "give" our bodies to the Chan hall; we must uphold the precepts by refraining from evil and practicing goodness; we must patiently endure the pain. We must hold on to that single thought of practice and let it continue uninterrupted. When the time comes, after a period of disciplined practice, your wisdom will naturally manifest and Prajna light will illuminate the universe. But that requires a period of smelting.

Without enduring the bitter cold of winter,
How could the plum blossoms smell so sweet?

To achieve success in any endeavor takes time. Those who retreat as soon as the going gets rough won't achieve anything.

Within This One Finds the True Appearance of Prajna

The practice of Chan meditation is "nondoing, yet nothing is left undone." What do I mean? As you sit there investigating Chan, you are not doing much of anything. Yet when you, a single person, investigate Chan, you help the proper energy of the Dharma Realm. If everyone could investigate Chan, there would be no wars in the world. "Do you have to sit to investigate Chan?" you ask. Well, it's said that you must sit to attain Chan (Dhyana), that Chan comes with long sitting. After sitting for a long time, you will experience an inconceivable state.

However, true Chan cultivators investigate not only when sitting, but when walking, running, and sleeping. In walking, standing, sitting, and lying down, there is not a moment when they do not investigate. Cultivators are not busybodies; they constantly pay attention to their own topic, "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" to the point that they have no time to eat, drink tea, or sleep. Whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, they continue investigating their topic until they "reach the end of the mountains and rivers"--the ultimate point.

Chan investigation requires single-minded concentration. When single-minded concentration reaches its ultimate point, then you will be able to deal with things.

It's said, "When things reach their extreme, a change must take place." It doesn't matter what the situation, by pursuing it to it's end, you can deal with it. Now as you sit in meditation, don't cry as soon as your legs start to hurt. After the pain reaches an extreme, it will stop and you will experience an inconceivable and ineffably wonderful state. There is no way I can express that state to you; you have to experiment for yourself. Once you experience pain to the extreme point, you won't have any more pain. You will have broken through the pain barrier.

But breaking through one barrier is not enough. After a while there will be another barrier, and then later on another barrier. The first pain barrier was after one hour. But when you have sat for one and a half hours, the pain comes up again. Why does that happen? Your blood and qi (energy) reach a certain place, and they want to get through a barrier--another barrier of pain. And so you have to endure the pain again. You endure it until it doesn't hurt any more. Once the pain disappears, you will feel at ease and very happy--an inexpressible bliss, an ineffable comfort. At that time you will feel Earth over Heaven making Peace.

You must break through these barriers in order to attain benefits. If you act like a child who cries at the first sign of pain, then you will never be able to break through these barriers. You need to have patience. Endure what is unendurable! Grit your teeth and bear it! But you must be resolute! Don't fear suffering! Don't fear pain! Don't fear difficulty! With these three kinds of fearlessness, you can break through the three barriers.

Why is it that, sitting in the Chan hall, we don't have the samadhi power to endure a little pain, suffering, or difficulty? Why do we find it so unbearable that we feel like crying? It's because we don't have any samadhi power, and we haven't broken through the barriers of pain, suffering, and difficulty. Now, if we can break through these barriers, then we will obtain comfort and ease. If you endure the pain to the extreme, to the point of forgetting yourself, how can there be any more pain? There isn't.

In everything you do, you should do it to the ultimate, and then, at the point of extreme purity, the light will penetrate. When your purity and samadhi reach their peak, the light of your wisdom will spontaneously appear and you will become enlightened. Every day you wonder about enlightenment, but what kind of enlightenment do you expect to attain if you can't even take a little pain? Shouldn't you feel ashamed of yourself?

Someone complained, "There's too much noise in the Chan hall. One person keeps coughing; others are snoring; and another person is always wiggling, which causes bench to squeak. The noise is intolerable!" That can happen anywhere. You may try to avoid this noise, but another noise shows up. If you get rid of that noise, you'll become aware of another one. If you know how to apply your effort, then whether it's noisy or quiet, you will not turned by movement or stillness. Not being turned by movement and stillness means that you don't listen to it.

Or your eyes may follow the movement and stillness, saying, "He is really irritating! It's impossible for me to enter samadhi!" Even if the other person weren't making noise, you still might not be able to enter samadhi. If you can enter samadhi, then you are not even going to notice his movements. And so in cultivation, while meditating we shouldn't insist on perfect silence. The noisier it is, the greater your enlightenment, perhaps. So don't let sounds aggravate you. On the other hand, if it happens to be quiet, don't go looking for noise. These are all merely states.

If you know how to practice, you can do so right in the bustling city. If you don't, then you won't be able to practice even if you crawl inside a vacuum! There is no such thing as a perfect place for cultivation. You have to overcome the environment. No matter what the situation, don't say: "Ugh, this is a terrible environment." Move somewhere else and it may be worse. Leave that place and go on to another and it may turn out to be worse yet, until there's no place in the universe that suits you. If you can overcome the environment, then everywhere is the same for you. The Buddhas don't choose the place where they realize Buddhahood. It's possible to realize Buddhahood anywhere.

You have to learn to be patient. If you can remain unmoved no matter how uncomfortable you feel, then you have a little samadhi power. That little bit of samadhi will produce a little wisdom. You say you want to hold the precepts? Sitting in Chan is holding the precepts--the precepts of enduring pain and suffering!

As you sit there single-mindedly investigating "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" without a second's pause, well, you tell me, are you committing offenses? Are you creating a lot of bad karma? While you are sitting in meditation, could you commit murder? Would you have thoughts like, "He's so mean to me, I'm going to kill him"? Would you be investigating the topic of wanting to kill someone? No. Would you think about stealing things? No. And so as you refrain from killing and stealing you are holding the precepts. By investigating Chan, you naturally keep the precepts without even trying, and then based on precepts you develop samadhi power.

If you don't investigate Chan, all the discursive thoughts which arise in your mind may lead you to kill, steal, engage in lust, lie, or take intoxicants. One single wrong thought can lead to many offenses. On the other hand, if you sit in Chan meditation, all these problems disappear as you naturally hold the precepts without trying. If you can be patient with the pain, then the effortless upholding of precepts produces samadhi, and from samadhi there arises wisdom. You are then diligently practicing precepts, samadhi, and wisdom and extinguishing greed, anger, and stupidity.

With the resolve to cultivate, you cast out greed and feel no anger if someone hits you. And when you sit in Chan, your stupidity disappears and your mad mind and wild nature vanish. Wouldn't you say these are tremendous advantages? That's why Chan meditation is said to encompass all dharmas. When properly done, the investigation of Chan makes us more awakened, intelligent, and wise. We should avoid a form of "stupefying" Chan which makes us muddled and oblivious, as if we were on drugs, so that we can't tell north from south or day from night.

So This Is What Our Original Home Is Like!

Every breath we take, every move we make, every word, every action, every thought, every reflection affects the time and space in the universe. Conversely, the vibrations of good, bad, pure, and turbid energy in the universe affect us as well. If we really want to return to the purity of our original source and discover our true identity, we must break all attachments to body and mind, and see through everything. We must undergo a period of smelting in the blazing furnace before the pure elements can be separated from the dross.

Wisdom will appear once our thinking and our breathing are both purified. As long as defilement remains, and the purity is not total, then we are still full of stupidity. When we sit and walk in the Chan hall, we are letting the silt and mud settle to the bottom, so that the water of our mind becomes clear and sparkling. Then if we can remove the sediment on the bottom, our pure Dharma body becomes eternally manifest. Removing the sediment means we come to understand our mind and see our nature. We return to the source, and take the road home to discover what our original home is like.

In cultivation, we should purify ourselves internally and externally. Internal purity refers to not having confused thoughts. External purity means not acting in confused ways. Internally we want to be like sages by cultivating the mind and nature, and externally we want to be like kings by avoiding evil, practicing good deeds, and benefiting all living beings.

By means of external merit, we achieve our fruition within. Externally we create merit, and internally we amass virtue. Creating merit means benefiting all beings. When we help others, we should not become attached to the thought that we are helping them. We should do it as if nothing were happening. As soon as there is attachment, then we lend reality to appearances. We create merit and benefit beings because it is what we should be doing anyway; it is our duty to help them. Don't harbor thoughts of having benefited beings so that after you do it all kinds of attachments remain.

Externally benefiting others and internally benefiting oneself is what Chan meditation is all about. There is usefulness and advantage gained every minute that you sit. What are the advantages? When you sit to the point of total stillness, the light will penetrate and you will feel as if there is no body, mind, or world. If you can remain in this state even when you are not sitting, so that when you come out of sitting the experience continues, then that is called movement and stillness becoming one and the same. Another way of putting it is that when you are sitting you don't have any discursive thoughts and when you move about you still don't have any discursive thoughts. Movement is stillness and stillness is movement; they are non-dual.

When you have this kind of skill, you will constantly be in samadhi.

At all times you are in samadhi;
There is no time when you are not.

Every gesture, every movement comes forth from samadhi; every word, every action--walking, standing, sitting, or lying down--is done in a state of samadhi.

The eyes see forms, but inside there is nothing.
The ears hear sounds, but the mind does not know.

To attain this state of samadhi, you have to investigate Chan and sit in meditation. After you have done so for a sufficient length of time, you can be this way.

If you really practice well to the point of gaining some response, then you won't know when you are hungry, thirsty, cold, or hot--you won't know anything at all. If you can reach that level of not knowing anything at all, then you will know everything. When we do something, if we can do it thoroughly--to the ultimate point--then a change will occur. When you move to the ultimate extent, stillness manifests. Stillness to the ultimate extent will bring about movement.

For example, daytime is movement and nighttime is stillness. When stillness reaches an extreme, when the sky grows dark and when that darkness reaches its limit, dawn breaks. When the light of day reaches its extreme, night descends. One day and one night are also one movement and one stillness. If you know how to practice, you can develop your skill to the point that movement does not obstruct stillness, and stillness does not hinder movement--so that within movement there is stillness, and within stillness there is movement. If you know how to apply your skill, then you will find that within true emptiness there is wonderful existence, and from within wonderful existence, true emptiness arises.

We should resolve to meditate until we figure out what we are all about. We were born in a confused way, and life would be meaningless if we also have to die in confusion. We need to find out how we were born and how we will die. Can we be free and independent when we die? The goal of our practice is to attain freedom over birth and death, which is true freedom--the ability to come and go whenever we want, without afflictions or worries. If we wish to go to the Western Land of Ultimate Bliss, we can simply get into full lotus posture, bid farewell to everyone, and go.

That's true freedom over birth and death.

In order to escape death
One must have death-defying skill.

To gain freedom from birth and death, you must practice without fear of death. You must not be afraid of pain, difficulty, suffering, or anything else.

Chan is the essence of all Buddhas. The Buddhas of the ten directions were born from Chan samadhi. If you lack skill in Chan samadhi, you cannot become enlightened or attain Buddhahood. We do not belong to any sect--we are not of the Linzi, Caodong, Yunmen, Fayan, or Weiyang sects. We encompass the entire substance.

For example, if this table represents the vast functioning of the entire substance, then we are like the whole table, not just one corner. That's why we do everything very naturally, without putting on airs.


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