Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) inherited all Five Schools of Ch'an Buddhism. So respected was his spiritual attainments that he was even transmitted lineages that he had not formally trained within - but whose teachers recognised that his depth of insight, humility and compassion fully equalled the divine levels of attainment that their schools demanded! In other words, without going out of his room, he knew all things (to quote the 'Book of Changes'). Chinese culture is very different to that of the modern West - despite the obvious similarities and intersections.
Within the schools of Chinese spirituality - individuals can live very long periods time - and lineages can be passed from long-dead Masters to living Teachers and Practitioners! There is no need to justify any of this, it is just how things are - pure and simple. Lineages are like streams that flow into mighty rivers and then the sea! A genuine lineage should have a compelling force all of its own that propels adherents toward the intended spiritual goal! A true lineage is like an ever-moving conveyor-belt that moves everything along - continuously - and in the same direction! We must all set a good example for our colleagues, students and descendants! If we cultivate virtue and set a good example - then by our pure actions we are 'adding' momentum to the lineages we represent!
The Buddha recognised that all physical bodies are born, exist and then die. This logical observation serves as the foundation of the Buddha’s Teaching. It is an inevitable process that every living-being must experience. An individual will be born, will live their life in any number of ways, and will then pass away through natural (old age) or unnatural (illness, injury or accident, etc) causes. According to the Buddha, the state of an individual’s mind is responsible for the ‘willed’ (volitional) actions performed through the body. The frequency of these decisions can be ‘healing’ and ‘compassionate’ or ‘debilitating’ and ‘horrible’ - it all depends upon the past conditioning (karma) of the individual mind (and body).
By permanently ‘stilling’ (and ‘expanding’) the mind, all karmic production is eradicated. This is a moment of karmic purification of mind and body. The ‘ridge-pole of ignorance is destroyed forever’ as the Buddha states in the Dhammapada. This is the experience of nirvana whilst still inhabiting a human-body – and when death arrives the body will ‘fall away’ - revealing the state of experiencing ‘nirvana’ without inhabiting a body. Through adhering to the Vinaya Discipline – this strict regulation of the mind and body in the environment has a beneficial effect with regards to health. This is because every rule is designed by the Buddha to ‘remove’ a particular negative (karmic) trait that causes ‘suffering’ in the mind and body of the individual and which permeates out into the environment if not ‘checked’ through the deployment of purposeful discipline.
This is how the Buddha strives to reduce suffering in the mind and body of the individual (and in the world). This process is cemented by emptying the mind of greed, hatred and delusion – whilst directly ‘perceiving’ the empty essence of the perceiving (and ‘non-perceiving’) mind. This is how the Buddha strives to eradicate all ‘illnesses’ (and illness generating ‘delusion’) from the mind, body and environment through the application of a strict discipline. This is why Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) was of the opinion that the Vinaya Discipline is a vital (foundational) element of ALL genuine schools of Buddhism – and refused to follow the example of Japan in ‘abolishing’ the Vinaya Discipline as a guide for monks and nuns. If a person wants to live longer and in a healthier manner – then follow the Vinaya Discipline!
‘...After my death, if you carry out my instructions and practise them accordingly, my being away from you will make no difference. On the other hand, if you go against my teaching, no benefit would be obtained, even if I continued to stay here.’
Then he uttered another stanza:
“Imperturbable and serene the ideal man practises no virtue.
Self-possessed and dispassionate, he commits no sin.
Calm and silent, he gives up seeing and hearing.
Even and upright his mind abides nowhere.”
Having uttered this stanza, he sat reverently until the third watch of the night. Then he said abruptly to his disciples, “I am going now,” and in a sudden passed away. A peculiar fragrance pervaded his room, and a lunar rainbow appeared which seemed to join up earth and sky. The trees in the wood turned white, and birds and beasts cried mournfully.
...The Patriarch inherited the robe when he was 24, had his hair shaved (i.e. was ordained) at 39, and died (sat upright) at the age of 76. For thirty-seven years he preached for the benefit of all sentient beings. Forty-three of his disciples inherited the Dharma, and by his express consent, became his successors; while those who attained enlightenment and thereby got out of the rut of the ordinary man were too numerus to be calculated.
The Altar Sutra of Hui Neng (Chapter 10 – His Final Instructions)
The paradox of the Chinese Ch’an tradition is that it expects lay-people and monastics alike to realise full enlightenment - ‘here and now’. What does this mean? Regardless of the circumstances of an individual’s life, the insight capacity of the mind must be turned inward with such a high degree of focus and precision, that perception is permanently ‘altered’ so to ‘see’ and ‘understand’ more than what was understood before. Being a Buddhist monastic is no guarantee of success in realising enlightenment, just as being a lay-person should be no barrier. Individuals will learn at their own pace and in their own way, with all kinds of psychological and physiological factors coming into play (traditionally referred to as ‘personal karma’). The ‘language of the uncreate’ is unique to Chinese Ch’an Buddhism and uses language in such a way that does not allow the habitual ‘dualism’ of conventional communication to come into play during an ‘enlightening’ interaction or dialogue. The convention of ‘dualism’ preserves delusive states of mind, and prevents clarity of insight from developing. This is why Ch’an masters (in ancient times) developed this mode of non-communication, although when Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) taught during the 19th and 20th centuries, he often used a modern example of logic and reason to describe the history, method and purpose of the Ch’an School. Indeed, whilst encouraging his disciples to fully penetrate (and realise) the empty mind-ground, he would often warn against the cultural habit of many people attending Ch’an Week Retreats to descend into ‘mystical’, or ‘nonsensical’ states of mind, each of which was nowhere near the authentic realisation of the empty mind ground! Uttering nonsense about ancient masters, does go much beyond the nonsense being uttered! However, once the empty mind ground is realised, then every word spoken by the Buddha is understood exactly and clearly, as is every odd action and utterances of the ancient Ch’an masters!
I am contacted every so often, and asked whether this site is still ‘active’ - as if its function is conventional and similar to the other sites. Of course, this is not true. The translation work that inspired Charles Luk (1898-1978), and (my teacher) Richard Hunn (1946-2006) was first suggest by the Venerable Old Monk – Xu Yun (虚云) [1840-1959) - because he had a dream (either sleeping or during meditation), that the Chinese Ch’an Dharma would spread to the West (as it historically had done from India to China), and that its methods would help endless numbers of Westerners. There was a time of intense activity, as I was provided with authentic Chinese language texts from my Mainland Chinese academic colleagues and fellow ethnic Chinese Ch’an practitioners. This activity has understandably slowed-down lately, as the amount of texts available has diminished. Our success has been to translate those readily available. More will undoubtedly become available in time, but I tend to prefer a more ‘natural’ approach to this process, and patiently ‘wait’ for genuine Chinese language texts to make themselves available. Although I am an academic specialising in the translation of Chinese historical and philosophical texts into English, the texts involving Xu Yun take a lot of spiritual energy to handle correctly. It is not a simple case of exchanging one set of words for another, as a deep and profound meaning must be a) perceived, b) understood, and c) translated and transliterated into a modern and reliable English translation. English speakers must receive (in their ethnic language) the correct meaning that Xu Yun (and his disciples) intended in their ethnic (Chinese) language. This is a special type of translating that is different to its conventional cousin. Simply exchanging words, (even the ‘correct’ word) is not good enough, as anyone with a dictionary and the requisite will-power can do that. I was trained by Richard Hunn for seventeen years, but even then, I was reticent to start translating full-time. Then, I met a number of very kind and encouraging Mainland Chinese people working in the UK, who encouraged me to start this project and formally take-over from Richard Hunn. As a consequence, we have built-up a compendium of good quality Chinese Ch’an texts that are rare in the West and designed to inspire readers to sit strongly and look within using the hua tou (Who is hearing?) - with a persistent (but gentle) power of concentration...
I respect the Theravada School and have trained with its monks and nuns many times. I admire its Dhamma and work to protect and preserve it in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar, etc. However, there are certain differences of view which I wish to explore (although in my own training, I see no difference). The Theravada view (for many but not all) is that the senses are purified when the body (and mind) is removed from direct contact with a polluting environment (such as when entering a forest temple or monastery, etc). Only a monastic can purify their minds fully, with a lay man purifying his mind to a lesser degree than the average monastic, but certainly more so than a lay woman. The Ch’an School rejects this view. As the empty mind ground underlies ALL phenomenal existence, the idea that only monks (or nuns) can fully realise it does not hold, and is contradicted by the numerous examples of enlightened lay men and women in the Pali Suttas, and the Ch’an tradition (including children) within China (Vimlakirti is perhaps the greatest Indian example), but what does this difference mean in reality? The Theravada method suggests that enlightenment - I.e. the uprooting of greed, hatred and delusion – is dependent upon circumstance and is only possible if an individual is ‘removed’ from direct contact with the ordinary world. Then, the corrupting influence of the three taints diminishes and eventually falls away (as all stimulus ceases). However, should such an individual be plummeted back into the ordinary world, then this deluded mechanism would re-active and the mind be yet again consumed by greed, hatred and delusion. The Ch’an method ensures that whilst living in isolation, or at least relative peace for a while, the mind calms to a considerable degree so that the hua tou and gong-an methods can ‘return’ ALL sensory stimulus back to the empty mind ground from which it originated. Once the hearing has been returned, all the other five senses are also returned, and the empty mind ground fully penetrated and realised. This experience automatically ‘purifies’ the six senses in a permanent manner that cannot ever be re-corrupted. This is why the Ch’an School advocates the ‘Ch’an Week’, or periods of intense meditative activity interspersed with weeks (or months) of quite ordinary and mundane activity. This explains why many Ch’an monastics either return to lay life to spread compassion and wisdom throughout society, or hold office or other positions within the lay world as monastics with no problem whatsoever. It makes no difference where their expedient body resides, as the six senses have been fully imbued (and transformed) through the presence of a pervasive and all-embracing ‘emptiness’ which is as purifying as it is compassionate and full of loving kindness. This reality further explains why many Ch’an practitioners refuse to ordain in China, as there is no need to do so.
Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) spent long periods of his long life engaged in isolated meditation, either high on remote mountains, or deep in inaccessible forests or other rural areas. This fact is often obscured by the decisive manner in which Xu Yun often also ‘engaged’ with the world of red dust, and influenced the mundane life of the laity. On the one-hand, Xu Yun appears to disappear for decades (as if dead, or at least ‘not born’), whilst on the other, he appears familiar, routine and part of the furniture (as we say in the UK). The ‘empty mind ground’ (空心地 - Kong Xin Di) is part of the human evolution of the mind, and may well have been the original sentient development when early humans emerged from the primordial swamps. It is a practical reality that is slowly being approached, observed, recorded (in the sense of brain-waves and brain-waves frequencies), and acknowledged by modern science. As Chinese Ch’an only possesses a nodding acquaintance to the Indian Buddhism from which it emerged (in one way or another), it is important not to overly mystify its own nature, or remain unduly ‘shackled’ to conventional notions of religion. However, as Master Xu Yun continuously advised, ‘discipline’ is the only path that works if a practitioner wants to realise the empty mind ground. Non-attachment to ‘thought’ and ‘action’ is a tricky business with many pitfalls...
There is always the ever-present trap of too many words, but there is also the reality of not enough. It is a question of knowing when to combat ignorance, check its progress and uproot its many premises, and when to allowing it a certain tactical growth for easier (later) disintegration. Ego exist in the dark corners of Buddhism where it masquerades as wisdom. Much of this spiritual materialism has its roots deeply ensconced in the Japanese Zen and Chinese Ch’an community in the West. Those lauded as authorities mimic the ethnic Asian culture they have an interest in, and spend their time taking on Asian names, wearing robes and assuming various airs and graces without ever penetrating and realising the empty mind ground. Such people dominate the business world (whilst pretending to be free of it) as they extend their ignorance through the power of commerce. Flying backwards and forwards from China may collect the air miles, but it means nothing on the meditation mat. I am not your friend and even less your enemy, but I am charged with making available (free of charge) any and all Chinese Ch’an teachings to you, and raise the level of consciousness in the West. Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) gave me this task, passed on via Charles Luk (1878-1978) and Richard Hunn (1949-2006), and further authority has been accumulated from various Ch’an temples, monastics and lay practitioners in modern China, as well as receiving encouragement from the Government of China. Of course, I could do without this duty and would prefer to enjoy my middle age in an insular manner, but the love and compassion I have in my heart for humanity and ALL living beings prevents this kind of selfishness.