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!
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...
This picture featured Richard Hunn with his young daughter in the UK (provided by his widow Taeko), and was taken during the 1970s. Charles Luk died in late 1978 (aged 80 years old). There are very few photographs of Charles Luk - Upasaka Lu Kuan Yu - in the public domain, but here we see a picture of him in his later years. Of course, Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) looks down upon the family from a photograph affixed to the wall.
This photograph of Richard Hunn as a young teenager was forwarded to me by his widow - Taeko Hunn (nee 'Watani') - who continues to live in Kyoto, Japan.
Around 2002, Richard Hunn, whilst flying between Japan and the UK had a stop-over in South Korea. Whilst perusing his way through the bookshops he discovered this 'The Buddha Box''. Designed in the USA and made in China, this delightful product contains a small Buddha-Image, a canopy within which he sits, and a beautiful hardback book (which sits in the back of the canopy). When he came to stay at our home in South London, he presented this to me as a gift:
Shuffling off the mortal coil, within the context of Chinese Ch’an Buddhist practice, is often associated with the male or female practitioner leaving the body whilst sat in the cross-legged, upright meditation position. Breathing slowly reduces until it can no longer be discerned, and the bodily processes come to a gentle halt. Chinese Ch’an literature is replete with recorded stories of men, women and children dying whilst standing, sitting or lying down, whilst retaining a particular posture. Some enlightened peasants have also passed away at a whim whilst working in the fields without a moment’s hesitation. Such an activity is inherently associated with the attainment of enlightenment and is still fairly common, even within Mainland China today. This is known as the practice of ‘Seated Transformation’ (坐化 - Zuo Hua), and is common in both advanced Buddhist and Daoist practice. By the time Richard Hunn passed away on October 1st, 2006, his body had been substantially weakened through months of spreading cancer and the effects of various radiation treatments – but he stated to me that he was going to die whilst ‘sitting up’, and that was that. As matters transpired, Richard Hunn passed away whilst sat-up in a Kyoto-hospital bed – and as his life-processes dissipated, he asked to go to the bookshop and buy some Wordsworth... I have researched both ancient and modern cases of ‘Zuo Hua’ in China and studied the photographs and eye-witness reports. The 6th Patriarch of Ch’an - ‘Hui Neng’ (坐化) - died in 713 CE and his body still sits upright in meditation, as does the body of Master Han Shan (憨山) who died in 1623 CE. There are many more – Daoist and Buddhist – scattered throughout the temples of China, and added to this are the hundreds and thousands of other ‘ordinary’ people who passed away sat-upright in-front of witlessness (often with written and photographic evidence). In my own seated practice, I understand that although the spine can be kept ‘buoyant’ whilst still consciously aware, the head inevitably drops forward when the sleep process is triggered, or the death process manifests. Many modern seated deaths end with the upper-body leaning (naturally) forward as the muscles completely relax. I am told that the alignment of the bones is the answer – (as in the advanced practice of Taijiquan). If the bones are aligned properly whilst seated, then the posture (I.e. ‘bones’) will be self-sustaining when all muscle-tension and control dissipates at the point of death. Elongating the vertebrae of the neck whilst pulling the chin slightly in should prevent the head from drooping at the point of death. Should my partner – Gee – be present when I experience ‘Zuo Hua’, I have requested that she photograph and film the experience for the progression of scientific understanding.
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.
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.