Knowing when to ‘assert’ and when to ‘give-way’ are important attributes for any spiritual traveller. As human-beings, we can find ourselves in all kind of circumstance as the day unfolds and our life progresses. Much of this will be mundane, but occasionally reality will take a shocking turn for the worst! No one saw the Covid19 pandemic arriving and virtually everyone was taken by surprise – despite numerous horror films over the years expressing narratives involving dystopic futures on a planet ravished by some type of illness, plague or other torturous device! Usually, such story-lines involve society collapsing back into an armed feudalism where brutality is the order of the day. Only the strong survive by preying on the weak. Of course, due to poverty and asymmetric economic development around the world, many people already live in these hellish conditions. I would add that even within the so-called ‘civilised’ areas of the world – killing and barbarity still exists – although it is hidden to a far greater extent (like a bad dream that people would rather forget).
Most people grow-up in the world learning to survive. Indeed, this is a crucial and necessary skill. It is not the skill of the huntsman or gathering skills of the scavenger – but rather the ability to navigate the character and personality of our fellow human-beings. Children can be cruel and adults can be deceptive – for many these observations are facts of life. This imbalance in the inner and outer environment must be dealt with in one way or another. Ch’an is not an easy undertaking because it requires a devoted self-effort to take on our own inner world before we set about attempting to make changes in our outer worlds. Many will attack and ridicule any attempt at self-discipline – but for the world to be a better place – self-discipline is exactly what is required. Looking within with clarity and steadfastness eventually develops to looking without with wisdom and knowledge!
Our personal circumstance can vary wildly through our lives. Many will experience poverty, homelessness, abuse and all kinds of deprivations – whilst others will experience only affluence and relative well-being, etc. The point is that regardless of the differences that define our outer existence, the empty mind ground is exactly the same for all beings! Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) lived a life continuously ‘gazing’ at the empty mind ground without any deviation whatsoever! More to the point – Master Xu Yun integrated his expedient self (or that which will eventually fall away) with the permanent and ever-present empty mind ground! Regardless of the situation he found himself in, or the circumstances he had to traverse – Master Xu Yun judged human reality not from the ego infected with greed, hatred and delusion – but rather from the pure and clean empty mind ground which underlies all reality and permeates the universe without end! Knowing where to place oneself in the phenomenal world - so as to maximise compassion, wisdom and loving kindness – is exactly possessing the skill of ‘moving’ and remaining ‘still’ in all situations!
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!
St Anthony (251-356 CE) is considered by many theological commentators as being the founder of Christian monasticism – despite the fact he was not the first Christian hermit – and admits seeking instruction from an old man who lived on the edge of a nearby village. Although being from Egypt – the Catholic Church makes a point of him supposedly being ‘White’ - with ‘Whiteness’ being presented as ‘good’ and ‘Blackness’ (the skin-tone of the average indigenous African) being firmly associated with ‘evil’! (Although to be fair, my Christian colleagues state that ‘Black’ in this context is a ‘figure of speech’ and should not be taken as ‘racial’. My colleague states:
‘See it in the context of Solomon's Song of Songs where bride speaks to her beloved and says "I am black but beautiful''. We are all black before the light of God, God is source of all light, we just reflect to a greater or lesser degree, and it will just be a million shades of black compared to God's light.’
Later, one of the Desert Fathers is described as ‘Black’ and yet considered entirely ‘good’ within Christian texts). Was St Athony the Great ‘European’? He could have been if his parents were the descendants of Greek invaders – and had never mixed with non-Europeans in the six-hundred years since Alexander the Great!
St Anthony came from a rich family who seem to have been Christians. After selling all his belongings and giving the money away to the poor, he left mainstream society to live on the periphery of society – rather like a homeless person today – who has been failed by the Bourgeois State and the capitalist system, although in the case of St Antony, the poverty he embraced was a totally voluntary endeavour. It would appear that despite his prosperous background – St Anthony was illiterate and did not read or write (he did not leave any writings of his own – but we know he existed by others writing about his life and teachings). Perhaps his supposed Greek parentage (oddly) did not put too much value in their child learning to read and write – two skills very much at the forefront of Greek civilisation.
St Anthony the Great was not a Desert Father in the struct sense, although he is often conflated with these later Christian monastics. He never lived in the desert and so cannot be correctly associated with this practice. Of course, Since around 100 BCE (and perhaps even earlier), the Jewish ‘Essenes’ had been living in the deserts of Palestine and frequenting meditation cells hued from indentations in the rock-face. Living a lifestyle very similar to what the Christian Desert Fathers would adopt – the ‘Essenes’ wrote of their experiences in the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’. St Anthony makes no mention of the Jewish ‘Essenes’ whilst imitating their behaviour. The Christian narrative is that he developed the Christian hermetic lifestyle following a Revelation from God that nothing to do with local history or religious trends in the area.
St Anthony literally believes in daemons as manifesting in the physical environment (often as ‘Black boys’), and within as troublesome thought-patterns and emotional responses. Racism aside – St Anthony views any form of ‘modern’ thinking as being the product of daemonic influence or daemonic possession. He dismisses the entire edifice of Greek philosophical thought and scientific investigation - as being the product of ‘daemonic influence’ that has no intrinsic value for humanity whatsoever! Understand how natural processes function is perceived by St Anthony as the indulgence of ‘evil’ by those who seek answers about how the universe works. Such knowledge, St Anthony tells us, only serves to create a barrier between individual humans and the God who he believes ‘made them’ in the first place.
As regards agriculture, St Anthony severely criticises anyone or practices ‘farming’ and growths food to sustain the community! Observing the seasons and how one transitions into another – is a manifestation of ‘pure’ evil according to St Anthony! He believes this because God has a set plan for humanity which involves tremendous suffering, death and persecution – and that if human-beings interfere in this process – then God’s will is either water-down or prevented from functioning altogether in the physical world! Yes – humanity is made to pointlessly suffer by God – but in so doing – God is creating the scenario for some of the more deserving’ humans to be ‘saved’ by his ‘grace’. St Anthony tells his disciples that knowledge of how natural processes work amounts to accumulating a ‘pointless’ knowledge that serves no purpose in assisting God to manifest his presence in the world! St Anthony, therefore, is opposed to scientific knowledge and any form of modernistic progression for humanity.
This is because such knowledge ‘empowers’ human-beings as individuals and a species – so that humanity no longer requires any direct contact with the God that created them. This is how the Christian Church explains ‘why’ most people in the West today – no longer possess a literal belief in Christianity – or no longer subscribe to traditional, theological interpretations of the world. In this sense, St Anthony was very good ‘at not learning anything’. It is one thing for an individual to embark on a path of subjective (internal) development that requires the complete ‘emptying’ of mind - of its patterns of historical conditioning (as is common within Buddhist and Daoist self-cultivation) - but it is quite another to insist that the entirety of society (and the progression of humanity as a species) should also be ‘limited’ to this ‘emptying’ in the socio-economic sense – if, indeed, that is what St Anthony is saying. Imagine a modern world without ‘science’, ‘education’ and ‘medicine’! Think also of the ‘good’ these developments have achieved for the benefit of humanity!
I would say that the enlightenment that St Anthony is striving for equates with the third position of the Cao Dong (Soto) School of Chinese Ch’an Buddhism. When viewed from this perspective, then even in China it is not uncommon for Ch’an adepts to leave society and ‘reject’ the world and go and live in the remote valleys or isolated hill-tops until they are clear about the ‘empty’ essence of their minds. After a period of further training – such adepts enter the fourth and fifth stages of Cao Dong realisation (which are stages of ‘no stages’) - where they are instructed to (permanently) integrate their (pristine) ‘empty’ inward state with their material surroundings. This is the spiritual interfacing with the material ‘as it is’. Of course, some Ch’an Masters used their enlightened wisdom (like the Buddha) to protest about injustices and to defend the weak and innocent – whilst others lived as unknown beggars under bridges or on river-banks, etc. We do not have to permanently ‘reject’ the outer world to be spiritual – even if on occasion we like to take a break from its nonsense!
The hermit of Lotus Flower Peak held up his staff and showed it to the assembly saying, “When the ancients got here, why didn’t they consent to stay here?”
There was no answer from the assembly, so he himself answered for them, “Because they did not gam strength on the road.”
Again he said, “In the end, how is it?” And again he himself answered in their place, “With my staff across my shoulder, I pay no heed to people – I go straight into the myriad peaks.”
Blue Cliff Record – Case 25
A Ch’an Week Retreat is an intensive period of focused seated meditation, that extends over a clearly defined time-period. This is a tradition within the Chinese Ch’an School that involves the monastic and lay community practicing together without any distinction. All sit together, and all follow the full Vinaya Discipline for the duration of the Retreat. If a Ch’an practitioner sits properly, (as observed by the Japanese Zen Master – Dogen), then the ‘Mind Precept’ is established. The Mind Precept is a ‘still’ mind (relative enlightenment) that has uprooted all vestiges of greed, hatred and delusion, and which has expanded to include the entire environment (full enlightenment). In this pristine state, all material things arise and pass-away within an all-embracing (and reflective) void. It is an emptiness that contains all things, and which is devoid of any and all delusive thinking premised upon habitual dualism. This bright and still mind manifests boundless wisdom (prajna), compassion (karuna) and loving-kindness (maitri), and is the basis of every rule - not only within the Vinaya Discipline - but also the Bodhisattva Vows. By adopting a clear state of mind and a disciplined mode of bodily behaviour, the Ch’an practitioner generates the conditions to a) realise enlightenment, and b) deepen an already experienced enlightening experience. Those who enter a Ch’an Week Retreat who are already fully enlightened, offer a great Bodhisattva service to humanity (and the universe), as their presence ‘purifies’ the fabric of existence, and generates ‘strength’ for all those still struggling on the Path! Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) always taught that there is no point forcibly adhering to the Vinaya Discipline if the mind of the practitioner is full of confusion (klesa) - and lacks a clarity of insight into the state of ‘stillness’. From a karmic perspective, if a mind is infected with dualistic desire, then negative karma will carry-on being produced (premised upon ‘volitional’ thought), regardless of the behaviour of the body. In such a situation, bodily action may well conform to the outer spirit of the Vinaya Discipline, but as the mind is impure, delusion carries-on being produced as before. This is an ‘inward’ betrayal of the spirit of the Vinaya Discipline. Monks, nuns or lay-people (who live like this), will be exposed sooner or later. Eventually, the sheer weight of this contradiction will eventually lead to an outer abhorrent behaviour that matches the corrupt state of the inner mind. This is why the mind must be ‘cleaned’ through the use of the hua-tou and the gong-an methods. Sitting in disciplined meditation for an extended period of time is an excellent method to begin this training, and to deepen this training once experience has been gained and progress made. Although the mind is impermanent, as declared by the Buddha, it is important that all greed, hatred and delusion is uprooted from its functioning, and that the empty mind ground is penetrated and clearly understood.
Around 14 years ago, I came into contact with the 'Sad Monk' (Qiao Seng) on a discussion forum regarding the exploration of Chinese Ch'an and Japanese Zen. I soo received an A4 envelope in the post from the United States containing 11 unique works of hand-painted artwork - included (above) a portrait of Master Xu Yun (1840-1959). The other pictures appear to be representations of the 10 Ox-Herding pictures. I have kept these masterpieces safe over the years, as I have moved from one living space to the next, but now feel the time is right to share them through a public space. Please respect the sanctity of these images and enjoy them in this gallery without removing or copying. This is out of respect for the artist - 'Qiao Seng' (Scott Martinez) and his original good intention. May all beings be happy and free from suffering!
Demystifying the enlightening experience is not a trivialisation of this experience, on the contrary, it is a clarification. As an exercise in logical thinking it also seeks to uproot and exclude the pretensions associated with pseudo-enlightenment and the exploitation contained therein. Is enlightenment a real experience? Yes – in my experience it is – but this statement should not be taken as a support for religion or religious dogma of any sort. It is a subjective experience which marks a radical shift in how an individual consciously perceives and interacts a) with consciousness itself, b) their physical body, and c) the material environment (and everything within it). I used the hua tou method for years (1989-1992) in an intense and dedicated manner, whilst living in relative isolation and receiving instruction from numerous individuals (with the guidance of Richard Hunn proving decisive). What happened? Through seated meditation throughout the day and night, I looked for certainty in a mind that was forever moving. My root consciousness would grasp this fleeting state, or that fleeting state which temporarily passed before it as being ‘the one’, as I had no real knowledge of what I was seeking. The act of regular meditation pursued through a highly regulated and disciplined outer lifestyle granted me security and stability in the physical world, so that I could direct all my available energy into the interior of my being. Endless thoughts and feelings traversed the surface of my mind and led to all kinds of vivid imaginations, usually as opposite and equal responses to the Vinaya Rules. (For instance, a complete lack of sexual activity in word, deed ad thought, led, for a time, to an intensification of thoughts and feelings premised upon ‘desire’). Initially, the surface mind would ‘quiet’ and a dull emptiness would appear – similar to a mirror made dull my smears and layers of still dust. On other occasions, this admixture of filth would manically swirl around. I could sense the true void behind this interchanging activity, but could not quite see through to it. (Later, I learned that this is stages ‘1’ and ‘2’ of the Caodong School methodology). After two years of meditation, and having my words ‘turned’ by Richard Hunn, a major (and permanent) breakthrough occurred. Whereas my words of enquiry were invariably jumping from one aspect of externality to another, Richard Hunn would expertly switch the emphasis away from the external (objective) to which I was attached – back toward the ‘root’ of the word-thought nexus, and into the empty mind ground. He performed this duty for me continuously and without fail. There was no pretence, no attachment to the external world – just Ch’an function returning to principle.
Eventually, after being shown the empty mind ground enough times, my mind-state radically shifted. A deep and profound ‘emptiness’ manifested that was nothing but complete ‘bliss’ to experience – like a continuous sexual orgasm throughout the mind and body, but completely divorced from the sexual function. Richard Hunn explained this as stage 3 of the Caodong School – further describing this awareness as ‘relative enlightenment’. The temptation was to stay in this magnificent state and never come out of it (once described as ‘samadhi suicide’). I could imagine living in a forest or on top of a hill, and permanently experiencing this ‘bliss’ for as long as my physical body existed. However, Richard Hunn warned me against this, and stated that the journey was not yet over. Being attached to this state of ‘oneness’ and ‘bliss’ was like being detained on a journey by a deceptive gold chain. This was also the stage of being sat atop of a hundred-foot pole – the key now was to ‘jump off’ - but how to do this? Although my mind had ‘cleared’, I still subtly mistook the now calm (and reflecting) surface mind (guest), as being the profoundly empty mind’s eye (host) – without knowing at the time that I was doing this. Stages ‘4’ and ‘5’ of the Caodong School explained this, but it was a difficult teaching to understand. Richard Hunn explained that I could meditate or not, and that he was saying nothing more about any of this.
I decided to continue to meditate and to read the sutras (particularly the ample Ch’an literature translated by Charles Luk), as previously I had not read a word for a few years. When I first read a Buddhist text (the first of any text for two years), it was like the words were tumbling from mind, through my eyes and onto the paper... Surely an indication of what the Lankavatara Sutra terms the ‘turning about’ in the deepest recesses of the mind. This is where genuine Ch’an literature (and recorded dialogue) come into play. These enlightened (I.e. ‘non-inverted’) utterances orientate the mind and clear away confusion (although for the ego the opposite effect is observed). I altered my practice to periods of intense Ch’an meditation interspersed with elongated periods of worldly activity, as this entire affair appeared to turn on how ‘stillness’ and ‘activity’ was understood and undertaken. Richard Hunn simply advised that my ‘virya’ will carry me through.
My mind in my head remained ‘still’ in the face of the ‘moving’ external world. For about a year I endeavoured to ‘balance’ this reality in various ways (the ‘not one’ of the ‘4th’ Caodong stage), always seeking the ‘not two’ (‘5th’ stage of the Caodong School). This is how it seemed to me then, with Richard Hunn stating that no genuine Ch’an master would say anything beyond the ‘3rd’ Caodong stage. Try as I might, I could not get beyond the duality of my ‘empty’ mind and the ‘moving’ world. I decided that the key lay in finding the ‘emptiness’ within the ‘empty’ mind. All of this was the world viewed from the ‘3rd’ stage of the Caodong School - looking inward and looking outward – there was the basic duality that I could not transcend. In the meantime, my hua tou practice matured. Whereas I had ruthlessly pursued ‘Who is hearing?’ - using the hearing capacity to control, organise and transcend the stream of thoughts in my mind, I now used this practice to simultaneously ‘return’ ALL my six senses (simultaneously) to the empty mind ground – although I always remained just this side of a major breakthrough. I began to see that ‘subject’ and ‘object’, although expediently disconnected, where in fact (and in some way) intrinsically connected. There was ‘oneness’ and there was ‘twoness’ all at once – but Richard Hunn (out of his compassionate wisdom) would not affirm or deny any validity to my observations – an I was always thrown back upon my own devices.
Since my initial realisation there had been a tension of sorts. This provided the inner power to continue the journey. An ‘inner potential’ built-up through right intention, and correct meditational effort. One day, I was sat meditating out-doors, as I found the open air conducive to expanding the mind’s awareness. Whilst ‘returning’ all sensation to the empty mind ground, a gentle breeze blew across my face and front of my body. At this exact moment (around August, 1992), my perception finally altered and I adopted the ‘host’ and ‘host in host’ position – an integration of stages ‘4’ and 5’ of the Caodong School. My awareness, which had been confined only to my head, suddenly ‘expanded’ to encompass the entire environment. The awareness penetrated through my body and united the sense organs with sensory stimulus and sense objects into a profound (and empty) oneness and was vibrant and diverse. Reality was both ‘empty’ and yet ‘full’, and there was no contradiction to this understanding. My mind finally ‘turned’ so that I now perceived the world directly through the mind’s eye (host), rather than through its reflection in the surface mind (guest). Around 8 years later (in summer, 2000), Richard Hunn confirmed this experience as being genuine and correct (although in the years between 1992 and 2000 I had travelled to Hong Kong and Mainland China to visit relatives and meet various Ch’an monastics and lay practitioners, all of whom issued the appropriate recognition). As the ‘guest’ became the enlightened function of the ‘host’, the delusive quality was transcended so that the ‘guest’ became the ‘host’, or reality was now comprised of ‘host in host’. The ‘form’ and ‘void’ were clearly distinguishable (hence ‘not one’), and yet the ‘form’ and ‘void’ exist simultaneously integrated without contradiction, boundary or limit (hence ‘not one’). Everything continued as it was before (with Richard Hunn becoming my friend), and yet my mind was permanently (and radically) altered.