The Rules of the Chan Session
Without wasting a single moment, I worked relentlessly at my investigation, constantly applying my efforts to it.
The Dharma Realm Buddhist Association was established in 1959. Its predecessor was the Sino-American Buddhist Association. Every year since its founding we have conducted Buddha Recitation Sessions and Chan Meditation Sessions. The sessions, however, have passed by without notice, and without fanfare. Rarely do people pay attention to the recitation and meditation sessions going on at Gold Mountain Monastery. This is because we don't advertise or exploit opportunities. We simply mind our own business and honestly cultivate. When someone finds out about the session and requests permission to join, he or she is certainly welcome! All the same, we resolutely do not beg, solicit offerings, or seek help. We don't say, "Gold Mountain is holding a Chan session. Several piritual adepts who have tamed their minds' will be attending. If you come make offerings to them, there will be limitless merit and virtue." We have never done any publicity to promote ourselves in this way.
In China, when a Chan session was held, the donations contributed by the faithful laity during the session were enough to cover the monastery's operating expenses for an entire year. Sometimes the revenue exceeded a year's proceeds. During the session, the participants would often take the initiative to make offerings and establish good affinities with the assembly by donating great quantities of rice, noodles, oil, miso, soy sauce, dried foods and so forth.
Now in America, where Buddhism has just begun, we want to reform the bad practices of the past. As the saying goes, "A good beginning is halfway to success." Because we refuse to employ any tricks to beg, we haven't created those particular affinities. If we had any schemes for bringing in offerings, it's likely we could improve on the situation in China and attract even more supplies and money than they did.
Why don't we solicit offerings? Because our first priority is to genuinely and honestly cultivate the Way and, in so doing, to simply accord with whatever the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have arranged for us. When the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the gods, dragons, and the eightfold pantheon of Dharma-protectors and good spirits see us working hard and walking the Way, they spontaneously respond to our efforts. If we fail to sincerely cultivate, however, and donors still come to make offerings, we should feel deeply ashamed. It's said,
If you have not put the three thoughts to rest, then plain water is hard to swallow.
Yet if you can understand the five contemplations, then even gold will digest.
If we hang on to thoughts of the past, the present, and the future and don't put them to rest, then if a donor offers us even a glass of plain water, we will find it difficult to drink. But if we can understand the principles underlying the five contemplations, then even gold (and this means the most delicious vegetarian delicacies) will be digested without problems. What are the five contemplations?
1. Consider the effort it took to bring this food to where it is eaten.
2. Calculate your own merit and virtue. Are they sufficient for you to accept this offering?
3. Guard your mind against transgressions, of which greed is the major cause.
4. See the food as medicine, taken to prevent the body from wasting away.
5. Accept the food only so that you can succeed in your cultivation of the Way.
Our Chan Meditation Session will begin tonight. The Chan ses-sions held at Gold Mountain Monastery are different from those held in the great Chan halls of China. Their Chan sessions were actually great feasts. Each night of the session, every participant ate a huge sesame-oil dumpling. Even the famous Way-places such as Gold Mountain Monastery in Zhejiang and Gao Min Monastery in Yangzhou were not exceptions to this rule. When it was time for the session, many of the old-hand meditators would show up only at the doors of the monasteries that were known to serve sesame-oil dumplings. Wherever the dumplings were the best, that's where they would go to attend the sessions. The criterion for choosing which session to attend was not the quality of the session, but the size of the dumplings! Some places earned a reputation based solely on their oversized, tasty, stuffed dumplings. I'm not slandering left-home cultivators by falsely making them out to be gluttons. This is a statement of fact!
At Gold Mountain Monastery, we haven't established sesame-oil dumplings as the drawing card of our Chan sessions. We don't serve snacks at all!
At the Chan sessions in China, many laypeople made offerings to the assembly. After the first hour of meditation, one layman might give each participant four longan fruits. After another hour, another layman might distribute two pieces of peanut candy to each meditator, or maybe cookies or rice-crackers. There would be some kind of offering every hour. Those "spiritual adepts who have tamed their minds" became rather greedy for food. Their bellies were so stuffed that they simply couldn't sit still in meditation. At our place, you won't find such offerings; we are different from them.
Each day in our Chan sessions, we rise at 2:45 a.m. to begin our daily regimen of walking and sitting, sitting and walking, and we continue like this until midnight. This is an ascetic path; it's hard training. We call it "doing what people are unwilling to do." You must suspend the three words "birth and death" right between your eyebrows and forget that you haven't slept long enough. Don't enter the "sleeping samadhi" right there on the meditation bench, or else success in Chan will forever elude you.
In this meditation session we must "renounce death and forget about life." We must truly and earnestly work hard at meditation. Make a determined resolve to get your rightful share of results from your work. Don't simply follow the crowd, sitting when you see others sitting, walking when your neighbors do, and sleeping when you see others sleeping. That kind of practice won't work. It will only waste your time, without bringing you any benefit.
In my younger years, I participated in several Chan sessions in a variety of places, but never once was I hit by the hall monitor's stick. Why not? Because I never slept during the entire session. I sat in meditation during the day, and I also meditated through the night. I sat in the Chan hall twenty-four hours a day. The words "rest" and "sleep" were not part of my vocabulary. Without wasting a single moment, I worked relentlessly at my investigation, constantly applying my efforts to it.
All of you have abundant and deep good roots. You are all clever and wise. You should give this matter serious consideration and not be casual in the least. In this year's Chan Session, there has to be someone who attains enlightenment. If no one is enlightened by the end of the session, then each of you will be dealt one hundred blows with the stick. If you feel you can take a hundred blows, then you don't have to get enlightened. If you feel that you can't endure such a beating, then you'd better get enlightened. If you fear the taste of the stick, you can still run away before the session begins. Once it begins, you must stay until the end. You can't withdraw early. According to the rules of the Chan hall, you've already said good-bye to birth and death. Even if someone dies during the session, we can only toss his corpse under the bench. No one is allowed to remove the corpse from the hall. And if nobody dies, then even less can you quit and skip out as you please.
We've built a "life and death" threshold to cross. If you don't live, then you'll die. If you don't die, then you'll live.
If you can't renounce death, then you won't experience real life.
If you can't renounce what's false, you'll never accomplish anything true.
This is Gold Mountain Monastery's threshold. And in this year's Chan Session, you all must be extra-vigorous. At all costs, you must recognize your original face. If you don't clearly recognize your original face, then you shouldn't dream of slipping out the front door of the monastery. If you try that, we might lock you up in jail instead. That sums up this year's rules, and I hope everyone will honor them.
A talk given on January 6, 1974, at Gold Mountain Monastery, San Francisco
Using One Idle Thought to Control Other Idle Thoughts
Investigating Chan means not having any idle thoughts.
Now our Chan session is about to begin. In the Chan Hall, we don't recite the Buddha's name; and during the Buddha Recitation Session, we don't practice meditation. Our motto for this Chan retreat is "walking is Chan; sitting is also Chan; standing is Chan; and lying down is also Chan." In general, walking, standing, sitting, and reclining are all Chan. Meditators of old didn't have any thoughts; their state was called "being without thought."
When not even one thought arises, the entire substance comes into view.
If the six sense organs suddenly react, then clouds will cover you.
Investigating Chan means working to the point that "thoughts no longer arise." After the Ming Dynasty, the use of the hua tou or "meditation topic" became popular. Now every meditation hall uses the meditation topic. There are many meditation topics that people can investigate, such as "Who's mindful of the Buddha (Who's reciting the Buddha's name)?" "What was my true identity before my parents bore me?" "What doesn't come to an end?" and so on.
Investigating Chan means not having any idle thoughts. For instance, if we're investigating the topic, "Who's mindful of the Buddha?" then we're always wondering, "Who's mindful of the Buddha?" The question itself is, in fact, a idle thought, but this method uses one idle thought to control all other idle thoughts. This method uses an idle thought to fight other idle thoughts, fire to fight fire. Actually, reciting the name "Amitabha Buddha" is also an example of using one idle thought to fight other idle thoughts. Strictly speaking, the thought of reciting the Buddha's name itself is incorrect. And the thought to investigate, "Who's mindful of the Buddha?" doesn't exist either. Yet one idle thought is able to end all the other idle thoughts. This is one of the fundamental principles of Chan meditation.
Chan meditators should have the attitude, "When the Buddhas come, slay them! When the demons come, slay them!" Don't cling to any states at all. We want to pursue our investigation until "we are no longer aware of heaven above, earth below, or people in between; we are unaware of things outside or the mind inside." That's when we merge and become one with the Dharma Realm; we may suddenly get enlightened! By no means should we let ourselves be disturbed by random noises or gaze around east and west in distraction.
If you investigate to the point where none of the four marks of self, others, living beings, or a life span exist any longer, then the root of birth and death will be severed, and you will come face-to-face with Shakyamuni Buddha; at that time, you'll appreciate the advantages of Chan meditation!
From time without beginning until this very day, only now have we had the good fortune to encounter the Chan meditation method. Thus we must make a special effort to concentrate our minds. We must be particularly sincere and work very hard. Do not let this valuable time pass by in vain. Do not indulge in idle thoughts of eating good food, wearing nice clothes, and living in fine houses. There is a saying that goes, "An instant of time is an instant of life." Time and life are equally valuable.
An instant of time is worth an ounce of gold,
Yet an ounce of gold can hardly buy an instant of time.
If you lose an ounce of gold you can always find another,
But once time goes by, you can't bring it back again.
This saying describes the value of ordinary time. How much more valuable is the time of our meditation retreat! Who knows in which minute or second you'll get enlightened? Therefore, you must treasure each minute and second of time. Don't let them slip by. I hope every one of you who has joined this Chan session will be courageous and vigorous, and won't be lax. Only if you endure every kind of pain can you finally experience every kind of joy. Endure what people cannot endure, and accept what people cannot accept. This is the true spirit of cultivating the spiritual path.
A talk given on September 1975, at Gold Mountain Monastery, San Francisco
Long-term Meditation Will Naturally Bring You to Enlightenment
Keep searching until "the mountains vanish and the rivers disappear." Then spontaneously, the good news will arrive, and you will experience a state "beyond the shadows of the willows and the vivid blossoms."
The basic rule in Chan meditation is: "Let your eyes contemplate your nose; let your nose contemplate your mouth; let your mouth contemplate your mind." This allows us to control the monkey of the mind and rein in the wild horse of our thoughts, so that they stop running outside seeking things. As we sit in the meditation hall, we may not stare left and right, because if we gaze all around, then our mind will wander outside, and we won't be able to investigate Chan. Please pay heed to this point, everyone! The time in a meditation retreat is extremely valuable; you could say that there is not a second to lose. We must seize the time and investigate Chan, because only through this investigation can we attain wisdom.
Cultivators of the Way should not treat their skin-bag of a body as a treasure. Only people who are free of this idea can apply effort in cultivating the Way. If you treat your body as a precious thing, then you will become its slave and serve its whims all day long. Therefore, genuine cultivators treat the body as a "stinking bag of skin" and don't prize it highly. Valuing the body is an obstacle to cultivation. We should merely "borrow the false to cultivate what is true," and see it as just an expedient means.
The biggest taboo in the Chan Hall is sleeping during meditation. Most meditators have two problems: restlessness and torpor. That is, if they aren't indulging in idle thinking, they'll be dozing off. Those who know how to work hard, however, will be concentrating their energy on their inquiry; they will absolutely not be sleeping. And if they can enter samadhi, then that's another story altogether.
Through meditation, you can attain "proper concentration and proper reception," which is samadhi. If you realize this state, then you will be "Thus, thus, unmoving, understanding and perfectly clear." How can you reach this state? You must put in a period of vigorous effort and rid your mind of idle thoughts. Then, "when not even one thought arises, the entire substance comes into view," and you will discover your original face, your fundamental identity.
The key to meditation is to investigate the meditation topic in thought after thought. A saying goes, "After long-term investigation, you will naturally attain enlightenment." Keep searching until "the mountains vanish and the rivers disappear," and the good news will naturally arrive, and you will experience a state "beyond the shadows of the willows and the vivid blossoms." Someone may say, "I've attended so many retreats; why haven't I become enlightened?" It's because you haven't been able to endure all kinds of suffering with only the wish to become enlightened. You should realize enlightenment comes from the accumulation of merit and virtue. In time, your merit and virtue will become full, and you will naturally attain enlightenment. To wish for enlightenment without creating any merit or virtue is simply vain thinking. As it's said, "A warty frog has no hope of tasting the flesh of the great, white swan." It's simply impossible.
Stop Your Idle Thoughts!
How can you be free of these idle thoughts? There is no other method: simply investigate your meditation topic.
Those of you in the meditation hall appear to be taking part in a Chan Session, but your minds are engaging in idle thinking. Your idle thoughts take you suddenly into the heavens and suddenly back to earth. Suddenly you are ghosts, then suddenly you become animals. You produce a profusion of idle thoughts, yet none of them go beyond greed, hatred, and stupidity. You claim to be diligently cultivating precepts, concentration, and wisdom, but in fact you are not cultivating precepts, concentration, and wisdom! You claim to be eliminating greed, hatred, and stupidity, yet you are not eliminating them. That's how strange it is! Not only are you this way in the present life, you are this way in life after life. That's why you rise and sink ceaselessly in the six paths of rebirth. Reincarnated as a dog, we feel we are number one. Reborn as a cat, we also feel we are number one. In general, no matter what type of creature we become, we always consider ourselves to be number one. Why is this? Because we have attachments that arise from our ignorance. If we use a true mind to cultivate the Way and work hard at Chan meditation, then we will be able to liberate ourselves from the suffering of reincarnation and realize the bliss of Nirvana.
Some people don't take their cultivation seriously, but just follow along with the crowd and waste all their time at the retreat. This is their attitude: "I just sit when the others sit, and walk when they walk. I just do what everyone else does." Such people take the matter of birth and death and simply throw it out beyond cloud nine. They don't take it at all seriously. These people are neither willing to really apply themselves, nor to dedicate themselves to cultivation. They are unwilling to beat their idle thoughts to death. They simply sit here, endlessly entertaining one idle thought after another. In a single day they may bring up eighty-four thousand idle thoughts, yet they still aren't satisfied. Idle thinking! Idle thinking! They let these idle thoughts tie their mind into knots and turn their spirits upside-down. How pathetic!
How then, can you be free of these idle thoughts? There is no other method: simply investigate your meditation topic. Although the meditation topic is also a idle thought, it can still bring your energy to a concentrated focus and prevent it from running outside. It is the method of "fighting fire with fire"; thus we use one idle thought to counter and control many idle thoughts. When one idle thought is investigated from front to back, one will no longer have idle thoughts. When one reaches the stage of having no idle thoughts, there is a chance for enlightenment to occur. At that time, a single word, a single act, a single gesture, or a single motion can serve as the key that opens the lock to your enlightenment.
Entering Samadhi Is Not the Same as Sleeping
A person in samadhi appears to be dead, but in fact, awareness and feelings still remain.
Someone has asked, "What is the difference between samadhi and sleep?" To put it simply, people who are in samadhi will be sitting in an upright posture with perfectly straight backs, not leaning in any direction. Perhaps their breathing will stop or their pulse will cease, so that they appear to be dead; however, awareness and perception remain. Someone in samadhi can sit for an entire day, for ten days, or even for a month without moving. If a person is asleep, however, his head is usually askew, his body is leaning, and he is not in control of himself. He still breathes, and his breathing may be as noisy as thunder. These are the differences.
The process of Chan meditation is just like that of studying. One proceeds from elementary school to high school, then to college, and then on to graduate school, passing through four stages before one can earn a Ph.D. Likewise, the Dharma-door of Chan meditation is also divided into steps, the Four Stages of Dhyana-concentration, which are briefly explained below:
The First Dhyana is called the Stage of the Happiness Leaving Birth. It takes you beyond what living beings can experience, into a state of happiness beyond what ordinary living beings know. This happiness is found in the spiritual skill of our inherent nature. When you reach the samadhi of the First Dhyana, your breath ceases. Your outer breathing stops and your inner breathing begins to function, just as if you'd entered a state of winter hibernation. Your mind at this time is as pure as water and as clear as a mirror. You can know your fundamental identity and can be aware that you are sitting and meditating.
The Second Dhyana is called the Stage of the Happiness of Producing Samadhi. In a state of concentration, an incomparable happiness comes forth. We refer to it as "taking the bliss of Dhyana as food and being filled with the joy of Dharma." Happiness such as this leaves one unaware of hunger. Thus you can sit for many days without any problem. However, you must not become attached to this state, for as soon as you become attached, all your previous efforts will be wasted and you will enter a demonic state. So you must be extremely careful. At the stage of Second Dhyana, not only does the breath stop, but the pulse stops as well. When one leaves concentration, these processes resume their normal functioning.
The Third Dhyana is known as the Stage of the Wonderful Bliss of Leaving Happiness. One reaches a wonderful, inexpressible happiness that leaves behind the happiness found in the Second Dhyana. You feel that absolutely everything is part of the Buddhadharma, and everything is a source of joy. In this stage, not only do the breath and the pulse stop, but the thinking processes also cease. At this point, you no longer think of good or evil, or right or wrong; not even a single thought arises. All the same, you mustn't feel that such a state is extraordinary. It's simply one step along the way, and it's a million miles away from putting an end to birth and death.
The Fourth Dhyana is known as the Stage of the Purity of Renouncing Thought. At this stage, not even the thought of happiness remains. You've already done away with it, and you've come to a state of purity in which there's no further action. This is the stage where "There is nothing to do, yet nothing is left undone." The attainment of the Fourth Dhyana is merely necessary part of the process of developing skill in meditation. There is nothing extraordinary about it. Do not mistakenly think that you have already realized the fruition. If you have that idea, you would be making the same mistake as the Unlearned Bhikshu, and you could fall into hells.
One who reaches the level of the Fourth Dhyana is still considered an ordinary person. If he continues to make vigorous progress and realizes the state of the Five Heavens of No Return, only then has he realized sagehood. Even so, he still hasn't put an end to birth and death. One must transcend the Triple Realm before one can end birth and death. This point must be made clear: different stages should not be mixed up.