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!
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!
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!
Many people are surprised to learn that Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) was subject to a more or less continuous stream of allegations claiming that he routinely ‘broke’ the Vinaya Discipline and the Bodhisattva Vows. These assertions were usually made by common people with an axe to grind for some reason or other. The fact that no one took these allegations seriously is simply because no one who mattered believed any of it to be true. Master Xu Yun was accused of seducing young girls and women, as well as pursuing homosexual relationships with young monks. When these reports were found to be groundless – Master Xu Yun was accused of amassing money and using it to lead a life of luxury and leisure! Again, no evidence was ever found and so these allegations were ignored like all the others. When he was married (in his late teens) Master Xu Yun never touched his two wives. Years later, this was confirmed by these (now elderly) ladies who had become ordained Buddhist nuns after their husband left to become a monk around 1858. These ladies were virginal when they entered the Buddhist nunnery.
My personal experience of Chinese monastic communities, as well as from the memories of other Western people who also lived as a Buddhist monk in China, confirm that homosexuality (as well as any type of sexual expression) was not present. This is because the facility of human desire is ‘turned inward’ and transmutated into pure spiritual light and energy that emanates from the centre of the forehead and from there permeates the entire body and environment. This process detaches sexual energy from the sexual organs and diverts the imagination of the mind away from sexual fulfilment through the sexual organ, focusing on ‘returning’ all this sensation back toward the empty mind ground. There is no outward sexual reaction or perversion within the average Chinese Ch’an monastery because the subject-object dichotomy that drives the sexual drive within delusive society no longer exists.
There is a point in this process where the sexual drive is transformed forever regardless of circumstance. Although a conducive environment is beneficially to start with, eventually, once the six senses are permanently ‘purified’ and ‘cleansed’, then a lay-men such as Vimalakirti and Hui Neng (prior to the latter’s eventual ordination) where able to live within ordinary society and yet never break their Vinaya Discipline. Vimalakirti had a number of wives and numerous children – and yet the Buddha stated that he ‘never’ broke the vow of celibacy. Vimalakirti also criticised the Buddha’s ordained disciple Upali (a Master of the Vinaya Disciple) for being attached (in the wrong) way to the ‘letter of the law’. Vimalakirti stated that being ‘attached’ to celibacy in such a one-sided manner was as bad as being mindlessly attached to sexual pleasure! The answer is that ‘pleasure’, ‘pain’ and ‘neutrality’ are all perceived to be equally ‘empty’ of any and all permanent reality. All emerge from the empty mind ground as karmic attributes that simply take the form that is implicitly conditioned within each strand of expression. This Mahayana penetrating of all phenomena is very different to Upali’s Hinayana notion of just avoiding ‘pleasure’, etc.
It is the same for ‘praise’ and ‘blame’, as both are equally ‘empty’ of any intrinsic or separate value. A practitioner who has penetrated the empty mind ground exists in a permanent state of divine indifference and are unmoved by either praise or blame. Reacting to the ignorance of others with the same ignorance does not happen because it cannot happen. Once the empty mind ground has been permanently penetrated, understood and integrated with, then there is never any slipping back to a more deficient position of understanding. People who operate through the ego are continuously attempting to make some kind of social gain through manipulating those around them. A Ch’an Master sees this straightaway and reveals the underlying reality of those who approach with ulterior motives. All is wisdom, loving kindness and compassion.
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 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.
‘Mind is the root of the myriad phenomena. All phenomena are born from mind. If you can completely comprehend mind, the myriad practices can completely comprehend mind, the myriad practices are complete.’
The Western world is attempting to apply the methods of modern science to each of its societies as a means to prevent the spread of a new type of pneumonia. Ordinary freedoms are suspended, commerce curtailed and politics geared toward controlling the situation. Many of us gravitate around our homes – which is the same for the rich as it is for the ordinary – we are all equal when we film ourselves self-isolating on social media. In the Book of Change (Yijing) it advises that in such times there is a ‘darkening of the light’, and we should adjust ourselves to this new circumstance, look within and work on our own shortcomings. This is a time of true and genuine monasticism in its purest sense. The mind should not be allowed to wander or speculate about the outside world. Whilst not catching or spreading the virus, we must use this situation as a blessing and not a punishment. The empty mind ground is always present and underlies all phenomena equally, good, bad or neutral. We can transform even the worst of situations by directly perceiving the empty mind ground ‘here and now’.