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!
‘Drdhamati, even while dwelling in Surangama Samadhi, I am in the trissahasramahasahasralokadhatu and, eventually, in Jambudvipa, I practice, as the case may be, the perfection of (paramita) of giving (dana), morality (sila), patience (ksanti), vigour (virya), absorptive meditation (dhyana) or wisdom (prajna), /In Jambudvipa I am, as the case may be, a recluse with the five superknowledges (pancabhijnarsi), or again, a layman householder (grhastha) or a monk (pravrajita).’
Buddha - Surangama Samadhi Sutra (Lamotte – 1998 – Page 197)
We all experience birth and we all experience death. These are two guaranteed events in our lives that apply equally to everyone regardless of our genetic inheritance or the life circumstance we are born into. Death can be further subdivided into a) natural and b) unnatural. Natural death to that shutting-down of the biological life-sustaining processes at the end of a long life, or at anytime on life's journey that does not originate from accident, illness or violence, etc. A 27-year-old, for instance, can pass away quite peacefully in their sleep simply because their particular genetic clock decides to 'switch' their heart off. This may be to do with the past evolution of human-beings when our distant ancestors did not live much past twenty. An 'unnatural' death is a demise due accident, illness or violence.
This is when an individual's life-span is cut-short due to a malfunctioning body (as in any number of genetic illnesses), or suffers the destruction of organs due to an accident. Violence committed by other humans can often account for many such deaths such as through pointless attacks within civil society, murder, acts of terrorism and acts of war. This category can be extended to include economic violence where people are deprived of work, income, food, clothing, education and medical assistance, etc, due to an ideology that privileges a few over the many. This also includes the the concept of 'psychological' violence which can serve as the base cause of all types of mental illnesses and later aberrant actions premised upon their numerous cognitive dysfunctions. Buddhist philosophy adds another layer to all this in the form of individual and collective karma.
The Buddha stated that not everything we personally experience and suffer has a root cause in volitional karma. Cancer, for instance, can be the product of a poor lifestyle and deficient choices in diet, activity and social setting, etc, but it can also be the product of the simple misfunctioning of a body cell with no input whatsoever from volitional karma. In the latter case, Cancer is a 'naturally' unfolding process. This is like the changing of the seasons or the rising of the sun, not much can be done about it at the individual level other than to 'observe'. Furthermore, at the point of full enlightenment, the Buddha states that the ridge pole of ignorance is forever broken and that the concept of karma (and notion of rebirth) comes to an end. Following all the quarantine and cleanliness rules in this current climate will help increase the chances of us as individuals not contracting, passing on or possibly dying from Covid19. From a Buddhist perspective, it is that simple.
‘We are here to inquire into the hua-tou which is the way we should follow. Our purpose is to be clear about birth and death and to attain Buddhahood. In order to be clear about birth and death, we must have recourse to this hua-tou which should be used as the Vajra King’s precious sword to cut down demons if demons come and Buddha’s if Buddhas come so that no feelings will remain and not a single thing (Dharma) can be set up. In such a manner, where could there have been wrong thinking about writing poems and gathas and seeing such states as voidness and brightness? If you made your efforts so wrongly. I really do not know where your hua-tou went. Experienced Chan monks do not require further talks about this, but beginners should be very careful.’
Master Xu Yun (113-114 years-old) - Ch’an Week - 1953-1954 – Fourth Day - Jade Buddha Temple (Shanghai)
Master Xu Yun never wastes a single word. This is because he is never confused as to the origin of a single thought. Master Xu Yun exists (psychologically and physically) within the permeant realisation of the empty mind ground. According to the historical (Indian) Buddha, ‘life’ as we experience it is unsatisfactory, seldom stable and prone to disappointment and ultimate dissolution. Physical life begins through the chemical explosion of conception, and ends when the body naturally shuts-down (during biological death), or is extinguished early through accident, illness or disaster, etc. Master Xu Yun lived through many such episodes throughout his extraordinarily long life (of two-cycles of the Chinese Zodiac). He lived within the space of the enlightened mind as explained in the Surangama Sutra. This is described as a round, all-embracing mirror that sees everything and rejects nothing. Like the sun – such a realised state shines on everything equally – bringing light and loving kindness to all phenomena whilst clearly distinguishing between this and that. This is why Master Xu Yun described the enlightened state as being ‘this and thus’ in his final years.
What many believe to be exalted states experienced when training in methods of self-cultivation, are nothing more than marks of progression and subtle expressions of delusion that must be ruthlessly ‘cut-down’ without hesitation. Buddhas in the mind are only shadows in the imagination, nothing else. Being obsessed with a shadow is not the realisation of ‘enlightenment’ but just more delusion indulged in a more favourable direction. These achievements signify spiritual ‘dead-ends’ that many reach and mistake for the state of ultimate ‘enlightenment’. Practitioners then become satisfied to remain in these dark corners of the imagination and to lead all other into the same cul-de-sac of doom! When attachment mixes with a false attainment, then an individual will not be able to move-on for very long extended periods of time. All is lost as darkness replaces light – and ignorance dominates genuine wisdom.
This quagmire can be avoided or escaped simple by applying the hua-tou correctly and effectively. What was once inevitable instantaneously ‘melts’ away as the hua-tou detaches the mind’s faulty awareness from this delusion and turns it toward the empty mind ground. This demonstrates the power of a) delusions to fool and distract the mind, and b) for the hua-tou method to quickly resolve this issue. The hua-tou is a very effective method of self-cultivation now only found in the Chinese Ch’an School of Buddhism (and the various lineages that have spread to other countries). Looking within is a matter of proper view – nothing else. Looking correctly will reveal the empty mind ground – looking incorrectly will reveal the delusion of the mind which cannot be escaped. Settling the body and directing the awareness is more important than all the passing phenomena of the external world (good or bad) - and has nothing to do with existential circumstance. This is why Ch’an is both difficult and easy.
The Buddhist Sutras state that at the point of enlightenmet realisation - all karmic activity ceases and all gods-goddesses are understood to be non-existent. Indeed, the only karma left is the lifespan of the current human-body - which must be lived-out - but with any potential (debilitating) effects greatly diminished through the - volitionl capacity of subject-object attachment - being transcended. Of course, this matter is complicated by the Bodhisattva principle which states that an appropriate 'deluded thought' is produced at the point of physical death so as to initiate yet another bodily existence (through force of habit) - which is selflessly used to help all other life-forms - whatever they may be (human, animal, environment and alien, etc). Pali scholars suggest this Mahayana teaching is 'nonsense' - whilst Mahayanists consider it natural and inevitable - take your pick. However, when an existence is completely 'finished' (as with Buddha and Master Xu Yun) - the individual concerned enters 'parinrivana' and that is very much that. Remember, the gong-an (koan) literature contain a wealth of wisdom regarding these matters. When enlightened Masters are asked what they have been practicing of late - they often reply 'not even the four noble truths.' Why practice an expedient teaching when one's mind (and body) exists in a permanent state of integration with the ultimate position (i.e. the 'empty mind ground')?
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...
Poverty is not a problem, as it limits unnecessary travelling and pointless experiences. I am not saying that poverty is correct, or even preferred, but when it comes to remaining ‘stationary’ and having to study ‘here and now’, having no options premised upon purchasing power can be an advantage. Focusing upon ‘awareness’ here and now is a definite advantage if the objective is to develop meditational insight as the mind exists, rather than being taken with the external world of ever-changing phenomena. Indeed, the Vinaya Discipline is nothing but the acceptance of voluntary impoverishment, and if this reflects or mirrors actual impoverishment, more’s the better. This is because the Buddha rejects wealth premised upon the accumulation of material goods, and instead advocates the accumulation of spiritual insight and loving kindness toward all beings. The giving-up of self allows the individual to experience a new collectively with existence which is freeing, fulfilling and accepting of all difference. We may exercise our economic muscle and travel places to entertain the mind, but this process, although enriching in one sense (like a Viking raid), nevertheless delays the real work of directly facing the essence of the mind as it exists here and now, with all its impurities, depressions, insecurities and dysfunctions. Travelling from one place to another is as the Ch’an masters say – mistaking everything in-front of a horse and behind a cow – for the essence of the mind! Being ‘where we are’ is a powerful weapon in the fight against ignorance and the injustice of the world. No one can take away your profound acceptance of things ‘just as they are’ - as this acceptance in no way equates to ‘agreement’ with the status quo! Outer change, if it is to last, must come from within. The outer structures of society must emerge from the deepest recesses of the mind. How we live as a species must be an outer expression of the deepest functions of the inner psychic fabric...