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!
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.
The Buddha explains clearly, in every expression of his teaching, that consciousness and physical matter are not two different things, even though they may be viewed as two distinct expressions of the same underlying reality. This understanding avoids the traps of ‘idealism’ and gross ‘materialism’, which are both declared errors by the Buddha. It is not that the mind does not exist, or that the physical world does not exist – both definitely do within an interpretive context – but that attachment to one view or the other is unhelpful when it comes to meditational development and the cultivation of wisdom. Furthermore, within the Four Noble Truths, it is clear that ‘consciousness’ in the chain of becoming has ‘physical matter’ as its basis (I.e. matter, sensation, perception, thought formation and conscious awareness). If this was not the case, this chain would read ‘conscious awareness’, ‘thought formation’, ‘perception’, ‘sensation’ and ‘matter’ - but it does not. This is the error made by DR DT Suzuki in his commentary upon the Lankavatara Sutra, which is perpetuated by those who think the Yogacara School is ‘idealist’ - when in fact the founders of this school begin their analysis by firmly stating that they agree with the Buddha when he says that the human mind is ‘impermanent’. Besides, genuine Buddhist training is as much in the mind as it is in the body, with ‘sila’ (morality) being the control of thought and physical behaviour. The ‘stilling’ of the mind is as important as the ‘stilling’ of the body, although the former supersedes the latter with regard to transformation and perception thereof. However, for a human mind to be functional, it must be existent within a living body. As to what might happen ‘before birth’ and ‘after death’, the Buddha remains ‘silent’, with many people utilising the metaphysics of religion to fill in this void...
The body is disciplined so that the mind may be ‘focused’. The Buddha teaches a type of Yoga, or at least a path that is recognisably ‘Yogic’ in origination. One of the first lines of the Patanjali Sutra reads ‘Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness.’ (Feuerstein 1989). Yoga is also an umbrella term used to describe a profound mind and body training that generates a permanent psycho-physical transformation. This is not a ‘subjective’ delusion, as the Buddha warns against this misidentification of inner awareness, and neither is it a hedonistic attachment to external pleasures (or pain) depending upon the conditionality of an individual. The Buddha advocates a non-identification with thought (and feeling), and a detachment from all physical sensation. Although there is a stage whereby the mind becomes free of surface thought (and a ‘stillness’ is experienced), nevertheless, eventually the process of thought is re-born in the mind but in an entirely ‘new’ manner which no longer ‘obscures’, ‘confuses’ or induces any form of ‘suffering’, etc. (The post-enlightenment situation is controversial and open to debate.)
Being a ‘Bodhisattva’ requires an individual to become truly ‘universal’ in perception, understanding and empathy. The conundrum of personal suffering must be solved before the suffering of the entire world can be taken on without any form of hindrance. To be a genuine Bodhisattva, is to be able to take responsibility for every single mode of suffering that exists in this world and the worlds beyond. Universal suffering is not limited to only that which humans feel – but necessarily includes ALL suffering everywhere. Furthermore, the committed Bodhisattva willingly takes on the suffering of past, the present and the future. The ‘intention’ is to be with those who are experiencing suffering, and to spiritually offer support and sustenance to help them through that which most would find difficult to experience or even face. How this is to be achieved is entirely dependent upon circumstance as there is no single method that meets all requirements. This is not an easy ability to achieve or function to perform. This is why Buddhist monastics in China take the ‘Bodhisattva Vows’ as well as the ‘Vinaya Discipline’ as part of their spiritual responsibilities.
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.
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.