The Chan we know about spread from ancient China. It was practiced in the forest, which was in accord with the social environment at that time. Being dedicated practitioners, forest dwellers also had daily matters to handle, as we do today. For us in modern times, even if we practice everyday, besides sitting with a fixed form or method, most of the day we still spend walking, working, talking, lying down, etc.. Except when observing noble silence during intensive retreats, it is rather necessary to speak and deal with what happens in daily life.
We have responsibilities to our families and society, which are part of our life. Those who practice full time — the monastics, for example, who focus on practice in the monastery, perhaps give away some family duties. However, it is problematic if monastics do not take some societal responsibility, because then society would not be obligated to support monastics and enable them to concentrate on practice. This means that even those who practice full-time have social responsibilities, only different in form. Generally speaking, practitioners do have social and family responsibilities that take time to maintain, and this does make it difficult to focus on practice.
From the point view of Chinese Chan, although it is not the entirety of it, seated meditation is the core of practice. What is the totality of Chan practice, then? It is our life. Chan actually is one with and not separate from living a life. This is to what we must adjust our mindset first. The concept that Chan is seated meditation with fixed form in a particular time and space is not wrong but incomplete. Our whole life is Chan practice. Of course it is not easy to understand and grasp such a concept in the beginning. Even when you have this idea, it is not easy to apply it to everyday life. This is why the application is a process of graduation to different levels.
For beginners, we may have the idea that Chan practice is in fixed form, time, and space; but when the time comes, we need to break the limitations and expand the boundary. Actually, when you practice in a particular space — for example, coming to the meditation hall, your mind has already begun to adjust. As you bow or prostrate, the bodily movement is Chan practice. When you sit on the cushion or a chair and apply a method, you find that using the method helps you inwardly collect and settle the mind into a peaceful and clear condition. After a period of seated meditation, you come out of stillness and leave the meditation hall. When you leave your seat, you continue Chan practice as you keep the state of calm and clarity. Your body is relaxed even when you are outside of meditation hall, and the practice of the method continues.
If you can do like this, making the scope of practice extend from a center point, slowly, it can widen to include physical movements in other situations and environments. The principles of practice in the meditation hall can be applied to activities such as drinking water, going to the toilet, eating meals, and resting. Then Chan practice is in a much wider space. Perhaps you are able do so at Chan centers or in retreats, because in retreats we try to create an environment in which participants have a sense of practice not only in sitting, but in all activities. The strict schedules help to achieve that. By doing this, your opportunities for practice have been increased to include drinking, eating, and sleeping, etc., which are all part of Chan practice. Doing so in retreats helps you to understand that Chan practice is not limited to seated meditation and routines in the daily schedule in the retreat are also Chan practice. Thus your mentality has been adjusted.
If we can extend Chan practice from seated meditation to other daily activities in a retreat, can we stretch further to our everyday life? We know that in daily life there is not much time for seated meditation, even though that is a very important part of Chan practice. Since we are unable to stay in sitting, then we must expand Chan practice to include any activity. Of course, we need to have methods for this kind of practice. When you are in the Chan center or in retreat, you train the mind to concentrate and reach some peaceful states of calm and clarity. If you can keep it in everyday activities with your bodies relaxed, then your life is the temple, including a practice schedule. Hence, eating, sleeping, and interacting with people are all practice and you can apply your methods to it. The methods only tell you what to do in using it; it is up to you how to use it. Can you keep the state of calm and clarity in everyday life? If you have such understanding, you will find ways to let the power of meditation from retreats continue to function in daily life, even in complex situations.
Therefore we must first open our mind and not limit Chan practice to sitting on a cushion in a particular space at a fixed time. Then we will be able to find opportunities to practice. If we can adjust our approach, the function of Chan practice can play its role in daily activities. By doing this, we expand Chan practice from a small point of the sitting cushion to the Chan hall, to an entire retreat, and to everyday life. If we are able to do it, we will find Chan practice is actually our whole life, and the totality of our life is the place and time for Chan practice. If we can do so, then, there is no challenge because we are already doing it. This perception is very important. Of course, to actually do this, there are some important principles we must understand and grasp (To be continued…)
(A public talk given in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA on September 8, 2014. Chinese transcription by Yawen Hsu. Photos by Kongzhu Shi.)