The practice of meditation in the tradition of Chinese Chan has typically been seen as about samadhi (a state of mental absorption in meditation). This is mainly because the ideology underlying Chan practice tends to be categorized into the school of thought regarding “Tathāgatagarbha” (Buddha Nature or true essence of Mind). This ideology has been taught by Chan masters who had reached samadhi through the practices of training the mind before they experienced awakening and enlightenment.
However, Chinese Chan is more about prajña (great wisdom), or we should say it is about both samadhi and prajña. Actually, the word “samadhi” was removed from the name “Chan–Samadhi”, and therefore only “Chan” remains to this day. This shows that the School of Chan does not pay too much attention to samadhi. At least, it does not put as much emphasis on samadhi as in the tradition in which samadhi is deemed crucially important. That is why in Chan practice, there is no such method as the “Four Stages of Jhana” or “Eight Types of Samadhi”. In particular, Master Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch, included both samadhi and prajña in his famous saying, “Samadhi and prajña are one, not two.” He said, “Samadhi is the element of prajña and prajña is the function of samadhi. When there is prajña, there is samadhi; and in samadhi, there is prajña”. This emphasis clarifies that Chan is not just something found in sitting meditation, which is another way of saying that Chan is everywhere and at all times.
This explains why there are almost no koān (kung’an or gong-an, “public case”) stories about deep samadhi. If there are any, they are very rare cases and are not considered typical. Instead, in teaching their disciples, as often described in Chan literature, most Chan masters emphasize being mindful as one lives “in the present moment”. One would rather say that the samadhi state of Chan emphasizes fusion of the mind and body, being clearly aware of everything in the so-called “desire realm”, right here and right now.
Samadhi in the “desire realm” refers to the stillness of mind and body regardless of whether one is sitting or doing other activities. Practitioners with forest-dwelling life styles use this level of samadhi as a convenient way of practice. This is where prajña arises. From the viewpoint of great wisdom, this level of samadhi is the most basic and fundamental. If one can attain wisdom and liberation with such samadhi, it is not necessary to emphasize “deep” states of samadhi. Practicing to reach samadhi itself is not a simple endeavor.
If the state of samadhi is unification of mind and body and being aware of the present moment, then one’s insight into “impermanence, non-self and emptiness” will be truly about the reality of here and now. In other words, when mind and body are unified, one is in the present moment. Therefore, using this method of insight, one can perceive right here and right now that causes and conditions are empty of “self” (a separate entity commonly viewed as “ego”). If one can see this and be awakened right here and right now, one attains the wisdom of no-self (or “egoless-ness”), and one is said to have broken through the worldly view of “self” and is liberated. This is a traditional method. Chan masters use this method for awakening and enlightenment. One can also use other skillful and convenient methods as entryways to enlightenment.
(2006/12/26 Written at 怡保, Malaysia. Published in the book 《日日好日》 by Dharma Drum Publications)