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!
‘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.
Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) inherited all Five Ch’an School in China. Although Japanese and US scholarship often claim that Chinese Buddhism ‘died-out’ - and was re-imported from Japan – this is untrue and a product of bias and incomplete knowledge. Certainly, Master Xu Yun would not have agreed with this assumption. All the lineages of Chinese Buddhism have continued to survive through thick and thin as the forces of Chinese history have ebbed and flowed. When conditions are appropriate, the various lineages have become ‘public’, popular and well-known, but when conditions have changed, then these lineages have withdrawn into the background and become ‘private’ transmissions away from the public gaze. Regardless of whether a lineage was ‘private’ or ‘public’ - Master Xu Yun was sought-out to carry the Dharma forward – such was the purity of his being. He lived for two full cycles of the Chinese Zodiac (60-years X 2) because of his shining virtue. He inherited and passed-on many lineages of Buddhism – far more than within the Ch’an School – but his personal lineage was that of the Cao Dong School. This is the lineage he personally inherited from Master Miao Lian (1824-1907) and the lineage he was instructed to personally transmit to a special ‘inner’ lineage of lay and monastic practitioners. The Cao Dong lineage was the path that he personally preferred amongst all the others that he was an expert in understanding and teaching. The robe of the Cao Dong School is ‘black’ and on special occasions Master Xu Yun would swap his patch-work robe for the his carefully looked-after Cao Dong robe (pictured above). Master Caoshan (840-901) - the disciple of Master Dongshan (807–869) [the Founder of the ‘Cao Dong’ School] - visited the Temple of the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng situated in the Caoxi area of Guangdong province (in Southern China). He then re-named the mountain he settled on (in the Fuzhou area of Fujian province) as ‘Caoshan’ in honour of the memory of Master Hui Neng. This is because the Cao Dong lineage flows all the way back to Hui Neng and is directly linked to his body which still sits upright in meditation in China today. ALL advanced Cao Dong must master the ability of passing from this life in the manner of Hui Neng.
A monk asked Master Dongshan: “The Venerable Sir is unwell but is there anyone who is never ill?” The master replied: “Yes, there is.” The monk asked: “Does the one who is never ill still look at you?” The master replied: “(On the contrary,) the lot falls on this old monk to look at him.” The monk asked: “How does the Venerable Master look at him?” The master replied: “When the old monk looks at him, he does not see any illness.” The master then asked the monk: “When you leave this leaking shell, where will you go to meet me?” The monk could not reply... After saying this, he ordered his head to be shaved and (his body) bathed, after which he put on a robe and struck the bell to bid farewell to the community. As he sat down and passed away, the monks wept sadly without interruption. Suddenly, he opened his eyes and said: “Leavers of homes should be mindless of externals; this is true practice. What is the use of being anxious for life and death?” The master then ordered a stupidity-purifying mal and seeing that his disciples were strongly attached to him, he postponed (his death) for seven days. (On the last day,) he entered the dining hall behind his disciples and after taking food, said: “I am all right; when I am about to leave, you should all keep quiet.” Then he returned to the abbot’s room where sat cross-legged and passed away.
A monk asked the Master Caoshan: “Every part of my body is sick; will you please cure me?” The master replied: “I will not.” The monk asked: “Why not?” The master replied: “It is impossible to teach you how to live and die.” The monk asked: “Does the master not have great compassion (for other people)?” The master replied: “Yes, he has.” The monk asked: “What should one do when all the six robbers come suddenly? The master replied: “One should also have great compassion.” The monk asked: “How to have a great compassion?” The master replied: “All should be cut down at one stroke by the sword.” The monk asked: “What next after (the sword has) cut them all down?” The master replied: “The realisation of sameness will then be realised.” After saying this, he burned incense sticks, sat (cross-legged) and passed away in his sixty-second year and at his dharma-age of thirty-seven.
Extracted from the Transmission of the Lamp
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.
What happened next? Richard Hunn had talked about separating the ‘bodhis’ from the ‘klesas’ - but like much of his method, a pristine insight was delivered through a typical British sense of humour. He also said that an individual must not be attached to the void nor hindered by phenomena, and that an indeterminate period of further training was required. Within Ch’an training, often it is the case (but not always) that ‘klesa’ still bubble-up to the surface of the mind post-enlightenment, where they can be harmlessly ‘dissolved’ through the power and strength of meditative insight (prajna). What are ‘klesa’? Klesa are psychological and emotional distractions of various strength, thought to be the product of eons of generating thoughts premised upon greed, hatred and delusion, through the filter of subject-object duality. In modern terms, this is the disrupting (and potentially damaging) reactions in the mind that respond to, and condition further actions and reactions in the physical environment. If a strictly scientific analysis is applied, klesa are the negative thoughts and feelings that cause distress to an individual that have been imported into the interior of the personal mind from the conditioning elements of the collective environment since birth. The Buddha states that a type of rebirth (but not reincarnation) operates within his system, whilst also asserting that at the point of enlightenment (viewed as the stage of ‘relative enlightenment’ as recorded by the ‘3rd’ position of the Caodong School) all rebirth ceases (as the ridge-pole of ignorance is forever broken), and is understood to be non-existent. Therefore, within the enlightened state, rebirth does not exist and only APPEARS to exist in the unenlightened state (probably because it was a common belief in India when the Buddha was alive). Of course, ‘rebirth’ can be imagined as existing as virtually everything can. In this scenario a vivid depository of thoughts may exist in the mind apparently linked to other existences, and this is an experience I have had during meditation (seeing previous existences in China), recognising friends and family around me today, as characters previously existing in bygone lifetimes in different places. The Ch’an method interprets all this as delusion which must be ‘given-up’ if the empty mind ground is to be realised. From 1992 until today (2019) I have been adjusting myself to circumstance. Physical existence appears to be happening within a glowing luminosity, an empty three-dimensional space or void that contains all things. Material objects and the physical world appear real in their own right, but inhabit this infinite, vacuous reality without hindrance or contradiction. Thoughts and feelings yet again move across the surface of the mind but are now both in the ‘present’ and yet fully ‘transparent’. This flow of conscious paraphernalia is no longer hindering or obscuring, but a natural part of physical existence. It no longer possesses historical roots, but appears purely existential in nature (linked entirely to my present and unfolding existence). As time goes by I find myself becoming ever more deeply ‘aware’ of this reality and its processes.
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.