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!
My personal experience (for what it is worth), appears to suggest to me that the enlightened state can (and is) realised by all and sundry - irrespective of circumstance - even though I fully acknowledge that its attainment is 'rare' even for those who are actively seeking it. When I was on Mount Athos, for instance, (probably around 2001), I met some remarkable Orthodox Christian monks whose ideas were very similar with regards to inner attainment. I also appreciate the beautiful icons of Jesus Christ depicted as an Asian man! In the West, the Christian monastics are the people who 'look within' to a surprising degree - but due to humility - their attainments are virtually unknown.
Of course, this is very different to what might be called the 'popular Church' which is only concerned with crass individuality, recruitment (through conversion) and the amassing of wealth! These are the missionaries who did so much damage in Asia in times gone by. I have no time for this type of 'racist' spirituality - but I know that this is not the genuine Christianity and does not represents the ordinary Christian people who are very 'humble' and very 'compassionate'. Where Judaism has assisted me is mostly through superb secular academics who have happened to be of a Jewish ethnicity. I have also lived in Hindu and Muslim families and experienced tremendous caring and compassion - not being asked for a penny even after a year of hospitality! In all of this I do not exclude those who see themselves as 'atheists' (other than 'fascists') - as reality can emerge at the strangest of times.
I was once walking who a dense jungle in Sri Lanka (in late 1996) with a bare-footed Buddhist monk. Suddenly, a huge hooded-snake rose up from the ground and was about three or four foot off the ground. It gently looked at me - swaying left and right. The Bhikkhu did not break his stride but walked toward the snake - which slithered up his body and rested its head on his right shoulder! The Bhikkhu then asked me to 'touch' the snake's head - which I did in a type of 'haze'! The snake then dropped to the ground and retraced its slither back into the undergrowth. The monk said he has met this snake for nearly 20-years years and almost in the same spot! The snake wanted to make sure that I understood that this was his path and that the jungle was not 'safe' for inexperienced strangers!
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.
What is the point of Ch’an (or Buddhist) enlightenment in the modern age? Many, if not all of the world’s great scientific breakthroughs have been made by human minds that have not undergone the Buddhist training, and which have not uprooted greed, hatred or delusion, transcended duality or perceived the empty mind ground. My personal opinion is that Buddhist developmental methodology is not a religion, despite the fact that many manifestations of Buddhism have assumed the garb of religiosity. Buddhism is not anti-science as the theology of other religions is often presented, and yet the Buddha and his disciples (although many of them ‘learned’), could not read or write. Many are surprised by this, but at no point in any of the 5000 plus Buddhist texts does the Buddha mention the modern notion of literacy, despite the Buddha’s thought processes appearing to be very modern despite manifesting at sometime between 2,500-3000 years ago in ancient India. As the concept of modern science has now mainstreamed in the world, together with literacy being the preferred norm, the Buddha’s path no longer seems that special or important. An effective scientist does not need to meditate or gain enlightenment to be an effective servant of humanity, and profoundly assist in its development and welfare. On the other hand, I have read Professors at Oxford University state that in their opinion, the Buddha was the first ‘modern’ thinker at a time when logical thinking was thin on the ground, with Carl Jung opining that the Buddha appeared, through a sheer act of will, to think ‘outside’ the era within which he existed. This on its own is an extraordinary feat, if it is accepted that he was the world’s first modern thinker in the true sense. In today’s world, being intellectually astute is inherently linked to simultaneously possessing a high degree of literacy and coming from an economically rich background, and yet the Buddha had none of these things as a spiritual-seeker. Indeed, today he would be considered one of the homeless community and what he had to say would be deliberately excluded from what is considered the general (and valid) discourse of mainstream existence. It is perhaps ironic that most that refer to themselves as ‘Buddhist’ in the contemporary West are of the privileged economic class that the Buddha rejected. The enlightened Buddha combines poverty, homelessness and unemployment with selflessness, non-attachment and sublime wisdom. What is interesting is that if a person were to live in a peaceful forest or on top of a hill far from the cares of the ordinary world, then the Dharma certainly does prove to be a ‘way out’ of ordinary suffering (by following the Vinaya Discipline). However, within the Ch’an School (and the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra), the Buddha explains the path of the enlightened lay-person. Such a person lives amongst the pleasures and pains of the world and remains non-attached to arising and falling thoughts (and emotions), and is unmoved by words of praise or blame. The empty nature of material reality is always perceived as underlying the continuous play of phenomena. Although a busy street or a quiet mountain top may differ in outward appearances, they both share exactly the same empty mind ground, and other than the practicalities of different manifestations, no real difference can be discerned. Understanding this is the further training required after enlightenment. From my own perspective, training as a young man directed, strengthened and freed the full intellectual and wisdom capacities inherent in my mind, whilst allowing me a completely different way of relating to and controlling my physical body. This led to tremendous academic success and the mastery of our family martial arts system.
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.