Ch'an Dao Links:
Remembering Norwich Ch’an Association
Richard Hunn with students in Japan.
When Ch’an Buddhism was taught in ancient China, it was often the custom that the teacher would give-up his ordinary name and assume the name of the area or place he happened to inhabit. This is why many Ch’an masters became known simply by the names of the mountains they lived upon. Under the direction of his teacher - Charles Luk (1898-1978) Richard Hunn (1949-2006) established the Norwich Ch’an Association which facilitated Ch’an retreats and generally made the teachings of master Xu Yun (1840-1959) available in English. The Norwich Ch’an Association existed up until 1990 – shortly before Richard Hunn emigrated to live and study in Japan. During its hay-day people would write letters, and visit from all over the UK, and the world. Indeed, in John Snelling’s 1987 book entitled‘The Buddhist Handbook’, not only is Richard’s letters quoted here and there, but in the section providing details about Buddhist organisations in Europe and the USA, only the Norwich Ch’an Association is listed, along with master Hsuan Hua’s Dharma Realm Buddhist Association of the USA, when describing representatives of Chinese Buddhism outside of China. At that time there was no other official groups.
Master Xu Yun emphasised self-sufficiency in Ch’an training. He advised Charles Luk not to become just another collector of experiences by travelling here and there, but rather to ‘sit’ firmly wherever he happened to be. This is the Ch’an teaching that Richard Hunn experienced. Master Xu Yun wanted Ch’an to be firmly planted in the West so that ordinary people can make use of its method by over-coming duality and relieving human suffering. This requires the good translation of key Chinese texts, and the willingness to actually put the Ch’an method into practice without error or distraction. Being blown around by the karmic winds does not result in enlightenment; this can only be achieved by sitting down and resolutely looking within. A Ch’an practitioner, regardless of circumstance, must sit with strength and never give-up! This website continues the instruction of master Xu Yun to be self-sufficient in one’s Ch’an training and not to look to externals for support. What follows is an unpublished letter written in 1989 by Richard Hunn to his student (Shi Da Dao), explaining the Norwich Ch’an Association. Every reader should use the instruction it contains to centre the mind and deepen insight:
Letter dated 3.1.89 Thorpe Hamlet, Norfolk.
‘Many thanks for your letter and enquiry concerning the Ch’an Association. It is a loosely affiliated organisation, our aim simply being to get people together who may be interested in Ch’an meditation, with a minimum of organisational fuss, so we don’t bother with fly-sheets or notes about organisations per se – they can get in the way. However, I would be happy to tell you a little about our interests ad lib (see enc. for details of Hsu Yun, whose teachings are supplied on our retreats). Some people call here in Norwich, where a small group can gather but for more ambitious sessions, we have a place to use in Lancashire and a lodge nearer the lakes, the latter being quite rustic, though dry and warm. Sometimes 20 or 30 people turn up for retreats – sometimes as little as 3 to 4. Last year, we held a short retreat at Sharpham in Devon, with further visits to Manchester and Sheffield. As regards “centres” and on a humorous note, we sympathise with the Tibetan Lama in Wales who decided to call his “centre” a“periphery” because people began to think that there was something intrinsically “better” about practicing at the centre than when moving an inch outside the door.
Of course, some kind of expedient ordering of affairs is required and places will inevitably prove to be focal points for meeting, but at the end of the day, so to speak, we like to think that people will find their “centre” in the centreless-centre which is always with them, and the point in our Ch’an sessions is to encourage them to do that, rather than see themselves as appendices to an organisation, institution, or whatever.
…how does one institutionalise the “great emptiness”?
Someone has just offered us 22 acres of land with a farmhouse, etc., in southern Ireland, but for the time being, we have commitments here, but I like to think that we might make something of the offer and set up a community on a flexible basis when the time is ripe – I have a number of projects to finish here first.
As regards our practice, it is based on the teachings of the late Hsu Yun (1840-1959), the last great Ch’an master on the mainland of China, the main emphasis being upon the “hua t’ou” technique. We like the idea of the “Ch’an weeks” that used to be held by Hsu Yun, the intensive sessions being intended to heighten or strengthen the fruits of training undertaken in one’s normal circumstances or daily life.
We were encouraged to teach western students by Lu K’uan Yu (Charles Luk), who was a personal disciple of Hsu Yun and presented translations, not only of Hsu Yun’s teachings but also the eminent T’ang masters who were the founding fathers of Ch’an. Of course, reading, on its own, is a complete waste of time, but it is certainly worthwhile digesting the teachings of the ancient masters in the light of practice.
Although we have no intention of “opposing” or “combating” the Japanese Zen tradition, admiring Japanese masters such as Hakuin Ekaku, Bankei, Bumen, etc., etc., and have friends in the Zen schools (I keep in touch with some American Roshi every year), we nevertheless feel that the Japanese schools have become rather rigid in some cases today, especially as regards the “polarisation” between Rinzai and Soto schools. Of course, some Roshi actually come from joint Rinzai/Soto backgrounds and would not like this polarisation either. Even so, some Western Roshi have made rather a lot of “fuss” about their respective “transmission lines” being different from others and by contrast, the Chinese tradition has not been so sharply “split” in this way. Hsu Yun, for instance, both revived and was the successor to – all “five schools” ~ (wu chia) and in the Tang Dynasty they were all doing very much the same thing. So another of our aims is to encourage people to explore Tang teachings, not simply in terms of “dead history,” or “past culture” in the formal sense, but as a practical possibility for the present (after all, none of these people saw themselves as “founders” of institutions, they simply gathered their followers around them and were expediently referred to by their place-names or ordination names as a matter of convention (i.e.“Fred” in the north, “Jim” in the south, etc.) In many ways, the directness of their teachings is more relevant than the heavily institutionalised forms that exist today.
The modern Japanese “koan systems,” by contrast, really date back no further than the 18th century and were not devised by master Lin Chi (Rinzai) himself, though such systems are now called “Rinzai Zen” and indeed, that is how Rinzai Zen is now taught in Japan. Similarly, the Soto school in Japan today is now closely identified with “Za-zen only,” (i.e. – “just sitting”) of Dogen Zenji but we hear nothing about this from Tung Shan, the Chinese founder of the Soto (Chin. Ts’ao Tung) school. So you see, there are some important practical insights to be gleamed from exploring the roots of the tradition. Needless to say, it is not our policy to “dump” all these considerations upon the newcomer, and initial attention falls upon using the hua-t’ou technique as explained by master Hsu Yun…without presuppositions. Of course, some people would have encountered the “problem” referred to already, through involvement with the Japanese sub-schools concerned, in which case, we would encourage them to explore the Chinese roots of tradition, so it depends.
(If you are interested, I strongly recommend reading Charles Luk’s Ch’an and Zen Teaching Series. Rider & Co. (3 vols.), London. We would in any case recommend Series 1 as a kind of “primer” for the hua-t’ou practice but if you look at Series 2, you will find records of the Lin Chi and Ts’ao Tung (Rinzai and Soto) schools as they were known and practiced before the transmission lines split. Series 2 also includes records of the teachings used by the other “3 houses”of which we hear little today.)
These are not merely “academic” questions and I feel that we who now aspire to tread the path have a duty to understand the tradition and its teachings as a whole, and taking a look at the T’ang teachings or masters can throw fresh perspective on what we hear from the Japanese derivatives of Ch’an.
It has been a kind of “truism” today that Rinzai Zen is “koan zen” and sets its goals on “seeking” or “acquiring” enlightenment, whereas the Soto now de-emphasising “seeking” and stresses the “inherently” enlightened nature. But this rather confusing picture seems to have very little to do with what either Lin Chi or Tung Shan taught. They both taught their followers to keep from what they called the “guest” position and to take up their training from the “host” position, free from both rejection of the phenomenal and attachment to the real, so that their minds would become still and free from bondage to either the “worldly” or the“saintly” and thus realise the undivided condition of bodhi. In both Chinese schools, it was taken for granted that without the “inherently enlightened nature” – there is no point in striving to realise or dis-cover its presence. Thus, Lin Chi by no means ignored the “inherent” aspect, nor did Tung Shan over-look the “acquired” aspect… It is a bogus problem, which Japanese masters like Yasutani or Harada Roshi have also recognised.
The degree to which the Japanese Zen tradition has become formalised today is evident from the fact that Obaku Zen is now considered to be quite unrelated to Rinzai Zen, yet in China, Obaku (Huang P’o) was Rinzai’s (Lin Chi’s) own master! Thus, we think that the future of the “Zen –revival” will depend upon the joint efforts of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese teachers – plus the Western students influenced by all these sources. Modern Chinese Buddhism has become seriously weakened by political circumstances today, so we need to preserve and protect its fruits – and the influence of Japanese Zen has certainly fostered that possibility by making us conscious of the tradition. We feel “gassho” (gratitude) for all the traditions, but that need not mean having a totally blind or uncritical approach, for we are making a new start with these things and we have much to learn about the tradition as a whole…including its crises or pitfalls, without which we cannot appraise its merits or more creative phases.
All of this verbal “guff” is worth “30 blows,” but you at least know something about our aim vis-a-vis the sort of things “on offer” elsewhere. I hope this is of some use to you. If I can speak without opening my mouth, can you hear without listening? Keep in touch.’
©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2013.