Chan Practice in Modern Time (part 3)

IMG_2037We know that Chan practice is cultivating the mind. Why do we practice to refine our mind? Because we find that our mind is very scattered, coarse, and covered by a lot of pollutants that causes many negative motions to the mind.  However, we also know that even though this condition of the mind exists, it is not the whole of the function of our mind. In our everyday life, we have a sense that something intrinsic within us functions, and occasionally it reveals itself to us. Otherwise, we would not have known to look for something inside when there are problems we need to solve. We know these problems are habits in the mind from accumulation over time, even though there are problems that are external. In our mind, there is incessant self-awareness or inner force which enables us to know that actually we can deal with these problems. We feel helpless only because there are too many habits and pollutants and too much impurity. Yet, there is an innate function letting us know that we are capable of handling it.

From Buddhist viewpoint or the angle of Chan, there is originally an inherent function of the mind, and it is in the natural state of calm and clarity. Sometimes we are aware of this function, but its operation is often obstructed because we have habitual tendencies and external situations that make us unable to maintain the state of calm and stillness. We know this function of the mind because occasionally when something happens around us, there is an inner force which helps us to calm down, even though most of the time we are affected by what happens. In Buddhism, the term often used for the original function of calm and clarity of the mind is “samadhi and wisdom”. We say “samadhi” and “wisdom” when our mind is not still and is confused. Actually, the state of samadhi and wisdom are one and not separate. Because of all kinds of impurities, this function is disintegrated or in disorder, and therefore unable to work effectively.

We should understand that through the methods in practice, we are not adding anything to the mind. If there is something we add to the mind, it will disappear some day. Chan practice is only allowing the innate calm or stillness and clarity or wisdom of our mind to function completely and naturally in unification. If we view Chan practice with such confidence, trusting that our mind has such function, all methods are just for the purpose of helping us to slowly cleanse and eliminate the pollutants or impurities that cover our mind. In the process of cleansing or applying the method, we find that the more collected and concentrated we keep our mind, the calmer our mind is; and the calmer the mind is, the clearer it is. This means that this function slowly emerges from within, and originally our mind already has such abilities. The methods we use only enable this function to manifest. In Chan practice, forms or methods are employed for this purpose.

The Six Patriarch, Master Hui Neng, told us straightforwardly that samadhi and wisdom are one and not separate. Traditional meditation practices differentiate the aspects of calming and insight because the tendency of scatteredness of our mind is too strong, so we must try something to settle the mind first. When the mind is calm and still, it is impossible for the mind not to be insightful. In other words, it is not possible not to have the function of awareness when calm, because this is the natural function of the mind. When we use practice methods, it is to let both aspects operate simultaneously.

If you thoroughly understand this principle, your utilizing the techniques will have a central focus.   The reason that we only consider seated meditation as Chan practice is probably due to the fact that we did not know our mind already has this function. Thus we mistakenly believe that we are looking outside for a method or to add something to deal with our mind. If this were true, it would be saying that we must deal with a problem with no end since after we had done it, as soon as the method is gone, the problem would return. If the method were something external and the problem were internal, then, only in sitting inwardly would we be able to handle the problem.

So we need to understand that all methods are for the sake of helping us uncover the natural function of the mind. With the help of the method, we clear up the pollutants and impurities, enabling the original calm and clear mind to manifest. As such, the deeper we practice, the more apparent this function of the mind will become, and the exterior pollutants will gradually be eliminated. Thus we practice Chan not only in sitting but also in all circumstances. Seated meditation helps us to go deeper within because it is a quiet state and it is an antidote to the scattered mind. It is not adding techniques to handle the problems but to allow the methods to assist the original mind to function without hindrances. It is more of an internal process. However, it can also deal with external problems as well as vexations.

At the beginning when we use a method, it is a process from external to internal. When the method works well, the inner strength of meditation goes from the internal outward; then, the method can be applied to everyday life. If you only treat a problem with something outside, then the problem will still exist when the method is not there. If we go into the mind and let the natural function of mind operate unobstructed, then the problem becomes simplified and eventually not a disturbance. If we understand this process, we are practicing Chan when we are sitting, and we are also practicing Chan when we are not sitting. The practice does not come from outside but going from external to internal, and again from inside going outwardly. Hence, when a method is practiced well, the strength of the mind will continue to play its role in action, and the original nature of samadhi and wisdom, the inherent function of calm and clarity, will function seamlessly.

This is why in everyday life, whether in moving state or not, and at any moment, we need to keep this principle of practice – a calm clear mind, and a relaxed body. Regardless if you use the method in sitting or not, try your best to retain this function of the mind. As you apply this principle well, all methods are just techniques and skillful means to support you in reaching harmony of mind and its original function. We should certainly understand this theoretically at first. As we confirm our understanding, it can play its role in our actions.

Again, all methods are tools to assist us. If you limit Chan practice to one form or method and in a particular time and space, then you solve only part of your problems. Therefore, after we have understood this conceptually, we are clear that the methods are only tools and they are not the totality of Chan practice. The totality of Chan practice is to enable the operation of the inherent function of the mind completely. This is a very important principle to understand. Regardless of what method you use, it must be a gradual integration of calm and clarity being one, not separate. Then all methods and techniques assist us to reach this outcome.

So, if you understand the theory and principle of practice, it is possible to apply the method regardless of time and space, and this actually includes the totality of our life.  All is practice, and all is Chan. If we practice with correct understanding, it is not something difficult. Practice is not something external with a fixed form in certain period of time — it merges with our entire life. Only then is Chan practice complete.  (To be continued…)

(A public talk given in Ann Arbor, Michigan on September 8, 2014.  Chinese transcription by Yawen Hsu. Photo by Kongzhu Shi.)

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