About this method of self-cultivation, it can be said that it is both easy and difficult. It is easy because it is really easy, and it is difficult because it is really difficult.
It is easy because you are only required to lay down every thought, to have a firm faith in the method, and to develop a lasting mind. All this will ensure your success.
It is difficult because you are afraid of enduring hardship and because of your desire to be at ease. You should know all worldly occupations also require study and training before success can be achieved. How much more so when we want to learn wisdom from the sages in order to become Buddhas and Patriarchs. Can we reach our goal if we act carelessly?
Therefore, the first thing is to have a firm mind in our self-cultivation and performance of the truth. In this, we cannot avoid being obstructed by demons. These demoniacal obstructions are the external karmic surroundings caused by our passions for all form, sound, smell, taste, touch and dharma. This karmic environment is our foe through life and death. For this reason, there are many sutras expounding Dharma masters who cannot stand firm on their own feet while in the midst of these surroundings because of their wavering religious mind.
The next important thing is to develop an enduring mind. Since our birth in this world, we have created boundless karmas. If we now wish to cultivate ourselves for the purpose of escaping from birth and death, can we wipe out our former habits all at once?
In olden times, there were ancestors such as Ch'an master Ch'ang Ch'ing, who sat in meditation until he had worn out seven mats, and Chao Chou who wandered from place to place soliciting instruction at the age of eighty after having spent forty years in meditating on the word Wu (No) without giving rise to a thought in his mind. If we can now wipe out all our former habits to purify our One-thought, we will be on an equal standing with Buddhas and Patriachs. The Surangama Sutra says:
"It is like the purification of muddy water stored in a clean container; left unshaken in complete calmness, the sand and mud will sink to the bottom. When the clear water appears, this is called the first suppression of the intruding element of passion. When the mud has been removed leaving behind only the clear water, this is called the permanent cutting off of basic ignorance."
Our habitual passions are likened to mud and sediment, which is why we must make use of the hua t'ou (thought's head, the mind before it is stirred by thought). The hua t'ou is likened to alum used to clarify muddy water in the same manner as passions are brought under control.
If in training a person succeeds in achieving the sameness of body and mind with the resultant appearance of the condition of stillness, he should be careful and should never abide in it. One should know that it is only an initial step but that ignorance caused by passions is still not wiped out.
This is only the deluded mind reaching the state of purity, just like muddy water which, although purified, still contains mud and sediment at the bottom. You must make additional efforts to advance further. An ancient master said:
"Sitting on a pole top one hundred feet in height
One will still perceive that which is not real. If from the pole top one then takes a step
One's body will appear throughout the Universe."
If you do not take a step forward, you will take the illusion-city for your home and your passions will be able to rise again. If so, it will be difficult for you to become even a self-enlightened person. For this reason the mud must be removed in order to retain the clear water. This is the permanent wiping out of the basic ignorance and only then can Buddhahood be attained.
When ignorance has been permanently wiped out, you will be able to appear in bodily form in the ten directions of the Universe to expound the Dharma, in the same manner as Avalokitsvara Bodhisttva who can appear in thirty-two forms and who, in manifesting to teach the Dharma, can choose the most appropriate form to liberate a responsive living being.
If your believing mind is strong and your enduring mind does not retrograde, you will, in your present bodily form, be able to attain Buddhahood, even if you are only an ordinary person.
Hsu Yun (1840-1959)
Excerpted from Ch'an and Zen Teaching – edited and translated by Lu K'uan Yu 1960