Chinese Ch’an is beyond words and sentences. Of this, we can all agree. However, I have just made use of ‘words and sentences’ to convey an entire list of concepts, albeit in an efficient use of language. The point is that each word (spelt correctly) is used like an arrow ‘shooting’ toward the target. Nothing can stop it, and its direct is clear. A Ch’an teacher knows ‘exactly’ where the target is and ‘how’ it must be reached. Enquirers are not clear where the target is, or how they are to reach it. The interaction between ‘teacher’ and ‘enquirer’ is one of directing the arrow toward the target. Or, to explain it another way, the teacher ensures that the target is in the right place when the enquirer releases the arrow toward it! Two people, one arrow and a single target.
Depending upon what is required, the Ch’an teacher either adjusts the direction of the arrow, or alters the position of the target. Once the two are ‘connected’ as ‘one’ - then the method for achieving contact immediately becomes irrelevant as the arrow no longer requires adjusting or the target moving. Language is important as a means to convey understanding and context, but the torrent of words create a cascade of meaning that never ends – even though each word contains only a limited over-all meaning. Language is accumulative. Meaning and understanding is accrued over-time – and yet sometimes the deliberate ‘non-use’ of language can be an important lever in the process of re-aligning meaning, reason, logic and understanding.
A Ch’an teacher can deploy words and sentences with the thunder of an avalanche – or the gentleness of a quiet cave interior. Both may appear to be a little frightening and intimidating – but both have their developmental purpose. The hua tou deals exclusively with words. Actually, it deals specifically with the ‘origin’, ‘manifestation’ and ‘dissipation’ of each word as it emerges from the empty mind ground, becomes fully ‘established’ in the mind as a thought, and then ‘dissolves’ back into nothing. If a Ch’an practitioner studies the hua tou for years on end, he or she is studying the essence of all literature as it arises in the mind! This worked for the Sixth Patriarch – Hui Neng – who was illiterate when he first realised enlightenment. Although he could not read or write (a common experience for around 90% of Chinese people living within feudal China), nevertheless, if a text was read to him, he could fully explain its deep and profound meaning!
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!