How to Investigate Chan - The Meditation Topic

Fighting poison with poison, a false thought stops false thoughts

When investigating Chan, we use a meditation topic, an inquiry into what precedes the state of no thought. The most common meditation topic is "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" The inquiry into "who?" is sustained, just as though we were using a drill to pierce a hole through the mind. When we find out "who", then we will be enlightened. However, we cannot deduce this by using our imagination. We cannot investigate it with our mind consciousness. Instead, we have to explore and search for where we have never been and what we have never known. Sometimes a breakthrough in the investigation brings sudden enlightenment. Space is shattered and the five skandhas disintegrate. This is described in the Heart Sutra:

"When Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was practicing the profound prajna paramita, he illuminated the five skandas and saw that they are all empty, and he crossed beyond all suffering and difficulty. Shariputra! Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness; emptiness itself is form. So too are all feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness."

When our investigation leads to the disintegration of the five skandhas, then we will not be influenced by the six sense objects. That is the first step to accomplishing Buddhahood. However, we still have to work very hard. Furthermore, you should know that Chan investigation is different from vigorously chanting the Buddha’s name. We do not incessantly chant, "Who is mindful of the Buddha? Who is mindful of the Buddha? Who is mindful of the Buddha," as if we were shouting for help. Investigating the meditation topic has to be done slowly, as we carefully search for our self-nature. As it is said,

Investigating brings awakening.
Awakening requires investigating.

Actually, "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" is also a false thought, but it is a case of using poison to fight poison. We use one false thought to stop all false thoughts.

Go with care. Avoid demonic possession

The meditation topic we investigate is one false thought. Our mind is full of many scattered thoughts. By using the method of fighting poision with poison, we use one false thought to stop all our many false thoughts. Slowly, one by one, we eradicate false thoughts, so they no longer have influence on us. At that time, no matter what state arises, we will not be deluded by it. We will distinguish things clearly and not become possessed by demons. The ancients said, "It would be better to go without enlightenment for a thousand lifetimes, than to be possessed by a demon for even a single day."

As we cultivate Chan meditation, we must be cautious and circumspect, and not get carried away. We must be proper, magnanimous, and forthright, so that demons have no chance to trouble us. Idle thoughts open the door to demons, but the meditation topic is the Dharma-treasure that exorcises those demons.


Concentrate on a single meditation topic

In Chan meditation, we can investigate a few meditation topics such as "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" or "What was my original face before my parents gave birth to me?" or "What is it that we can do without?". If all of you can investigate single-mindedly, you will definitely obtain benefits.

Let not a single thought arise. Be mindful of the present

Investigation is similar to drilling wood; you do not stop until the drill makes a hole all the way through the wood. If you stop halfway, then all your earlier efforts will be to no avail. The first priority in Chan meditation is patience. When you can be entirely patient, then you can reach a state of "not even one thought arising". When not even one thought arises, you can get enlightened. As the saying goes, "Take one more step from the very top of a hundred- foot pole." At that time, when you can take yet another step from the very top of a hundred-foot pole, the worlds throughout the ten directions manifest in their entirety. To gain success, however, you must apply yourself constantly, in thought after thought, without any laziness or slacking off.

Be as a cat is when stalking a mouse. Be as a dragon is when guarding its pearl

Investigating Chan is just like using a drill to create a hole. You must keep on drilling until you have broken through. Drilling through is known as "breaking the fundamental investigation". Having drilled a hole through, brightness will be revealed. In this dark house, without any windows and doors, you have to use a drill to make a hole. When a hole has been made, light will shine in. When you are still ignorant and do not understand anything, it is just like being in a dark room without windows and doors. If, in using this skill to investigate Chan, you succeed in drilling through, light will shine in. This is investigating Chan.

There is another analogy. Meditation is just like "a cat stalking a mouse." When a cat stalks a mouse, it watches the mouse-hole intently. The moment the mouse comes out, the cat pounces on it and grabs it with its paw. The mouse has no way of escaping. What is the ‘mouse’? It represents your ignorance. When you emit light, it is similar to a cat that has caught the mouse.

Yet there is another analogy. It is like "a dragon nurturing its pearl." A dragon never strays from his gem. When two dragons fight over a pearl, they treat it as even more precious than their own lives. Hence, a dragon will think of ways and means to protect its pearl. In the same way, a Chan investigator is like a dragon that nurtures its pearl constantly in thought after thought. This is called contemplating at ease. If you can contemplate at ease, you are ever mindful of the present. However, if you cannot contemplate at ease, that means you are running away! What happens when you run away? It means you give in to false thoughts. As soon as you have false thoughts, you will not be at ease. When you do not have false thoughts, then you are at ease.

Let me give you another example. What is meditation like? It is like "a hen brooding over her eggs." When the hen broods over her eggs, she thinks, "I am here sitting on the eggs. When the time comes, the chicks will hatch. Little chicks will definitely appear." When you investigate Chan, it is similar to a hen brooding over her eggs. You reflect, "Oh! One day I will be enlightened. When I practice for one day, my self-nature will shine forth a bit of light. If I practice everyday, then my wisdom light will shine forth constantly. Eventually, I will want to be the same as the Buddha, not in the least bit different." When you investigate in this way, you are just like the hen brooding over her eggs, and one day you will succeed! This is Chan investigation.

Our meditation topic works like the Headband-tightening Mantra

When we sit in meditation, we have to catch the little monkey. The human mind is like a wild horse. Our thoughts are as restless and naughty as a monkey. If we don’t catch that monkey, it will just keep giving us the runaround. Our essence and spirit will be scattered and our energy source will become depleted to exhaustion. The energy source of the self-nature is very precious. If it is depleted by the monkey for no rhyme or reason, then it is really not worth it. Now, we need to train the horse to obey instructions and tame the monkey so that it will be obedient. This means you have to tame the wild-horse mind and monkey-like thoughts. How do you do it? You need to tie on a golden headband and then chant the Headband-tightening Mantra.

In the novel Journey to the West, as soon as Xuan Zhuang, the Tang monk, chanted the Headband-tightening Mantra, the monkey-god, Sun Wu Kong, became very obedient. What is our Headband-tightening Mantra? The inquiry into ‘who’ in our meditation topic "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" will work. Use it and the monkey-like thoughts will become obedient. Since the monkey in our mind does not know who that ‘who’ is, it will concentrate single-mindedly to search for it. Once our monkey-like thoughts quiet down, our mind will attentively concentrate in its search and our thoughts will no longer give us the runaround. If you can catch the monkey and tame it, then your skill is almost there!


If you are apart from this, you have gone amiss

Investigating Chan goes beyond the hard work we do while sitting in meditation. We have to work hard while walking, standing, sitting, or reclining. Sitting meditation provides the opportunity to concentration on the focal point of our meditation topic. Then, while walking, standing, sitting, and reclining, we continue to investigate "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" The entire verse reads,

Walking, standing, sitting, and lying down,
do not be apart from this.
If you are apart from this,
you have gone amiss.

What is this? It refers to our investigation of our meditation
topic, "Who is mindful of the Buddha?"

Sweep away all dharmas. Separate from all marks

Those who do not understand the method of Chan investigation may treat it like chanting the Buddha’s name, thinking that the more you chant the better it is. That would be a mistake. Inquiry into the meditation topic is not done by chanting it. The best way is to stretch the resonance of the inquiry so that it lasts for a few hours without ending. That inquiry could even continue for eighty-thousand great kalpas without interruption. That would truly be investigating Chan. Why do we investigate "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" The word "who" is basically superfluous, but we are like monkeys, always looking around for something to do. With the word "who" acting as a shield can deflect all those idle thoughts.

This Dharma-door uses poison to fight poison. Only when we are free of all random thoughts can we be said to be diligently wiping the mirror of our mind clean at all times. To investigate Chan simply means to diligently wipe the mirror of the mind clean. Why must we keep wiping it clean? We must do that to keep the mind from attracting dust. This is the Dharma-door of "sweeping away all dharmas, and separating from all marks."

If you do not use Dharma-selecting vision so that you recognize true Dharma, then you do not really know how to investigate. If you do not learn how to investigate, your efforts will just be wasted. That is because if you fail to recognize proper Dharma, you may well end up following deviant dharmas. That is why Dharma-selecting vision is so important.

Contemplate at ease to find wisdom

Investigating Chan means learning to contemplate. What are we to contemplate? Contemplate your illuminating prajna. I am teaching you to be mindful of the present and to contemplate yourself, not to contemplate others. Contemplate whether you are here or not? If you are here, then you can sit and investigate Chan, working hard at cultivation. If you are not here, then you are indulging in false thinking and are daydreaming. Even though you are physically in the Chan hall, your mind has gone to New York sightseeing, or to Italy for a holiday. Your mind goes everywhere, climbing on conditions. Hence, you are not at ease.

To contemplate at ease is to be a Bodhisattva. Not contemplating at ease, you are an ordinary person. To contemplate at ease is to experience the divine. If you do not contemplate at ease, you may end up enduring the hells. If you contemplate at ease and your mind does not escape, then you can practice profound prajna paramita. By physically investigating Chan continuously without cease, you are also practicing profound prajna, and discovering your wisdom. Once you activate your inherent great wisdom, then you can reach the other shore.

The secret to Chan investigation is to focus on it day and night. Focus on what? "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" Investigate this today and again tomorrow. Even though you practice profound prajna paramita in the Chan hall everyday, you may not taste the flavor of Chan right away. It takes a long time to accomplish that. Only when you have gained sufficient skill in practicing profound prajna paramita will you be able to illuminate the five skandhas and see that they are all empty.

When we gain the One, all things are done

The secret of investigating Chan is to gain one-pointed focus. As the saying goes,

When Heaven attains the One,
it becomes pure;
When Earth attains the One,
it becomes peaceful;
When a person attains the One,
he becomes a sage.
When all things attain the One,
they all abide in their destiny.

This is why the One is the beginning of all things. However, it is still not the ultimate Dharma. It is said,

When you obtain the One,
all things are done.

But if you attach to the One, then you will fall into two or three, and that is not true emptiness. What is true emptiness? It is Zero. The Zero is formed by making a circle. It is neither big nor small, neither inside nor outside, has no beginning and no end and cannot be enumerated. However, all numbers are not apart from it. Cultivation starts with cultivating the One until you return to Zero. From Zero uncountable functions come forth. Although it is said that "when you obtain the One, all things are done", at the stage of Zero, there is not a single thing. At that point,

When not one Dharma is established,
the myriad conditions are empty.

That is the ultimate liberation!


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