On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

December 01, 2013

The Essentials of Chan Practice

Xu Yun (1839-1959)

The purpose of investigating Chan is to illuminate the Mind and see your self-nature. You must eradicate the mind’s impurities so as to personally perceive the true face of your self-nature.

The mind’s impurities are wandering thoughts and attachment; self-nature is the wisdom and virtue of the Tathagata. Sentient beings are replete with the wisdom and virtue of buddhas; they are not two and not separated from one another. If you can leave behind wandering thoughts and attachments, then you will attain this wisdom and virtue that is within you. This is buddhahood. Otherwise you remain an ordinary sentient being.

It is because you and I have been, for unlimited kalpas, wallowing in birth and death, defiled for a long time, and unable to immediately cast off wandering thoughts that we cannot perceive our intrinsic nature. For these reasons, the first prerequisite of investigating Chan is to eradicate wandering thoughts.

How do we eradicate wandering thoughts? Shakymuni Buddha taught much on this subject. His simplest and most direct teaching is the word stop, from the expression “Stopping is bodhi.”

From the time when Bodhidharma transmitted Chan teachings to our Eastern land, after the Sixth Patriarch, the winds of Chan have blown far and wide shaking and illuminating the world. Among the many things that Bodhidharma and the Sixth Patriarch taught to those who came to study with them, none is more valuable than the saying “Put down the myriad entangling conditions; let not one thought arise.”

Putting down the myriad entangling conditions simply means to put down allconditions. So this phrase “Put down all conditions and let not one thought arise” is actually the foremost prerequisite of a Chan practitioner. If you cannot fulfill this requirement, then not only will you fail to attain the ultimate goal of Chan practice, but you will not even be able to enter the gate of Chan. How can you speak of practicing Chan if you are entangled by worldly phenomena, wallowing in the arising and passing of your thoughts?

Put Down the Myriad Entangling Conditions

“Put down all conditions and let not one thought arise” is a prerequisite for the practice of investigating Chan. Now that we know this, how do we accomplish it?

The best practitioner, one of superior abilities, can in an instant put to rest all deluded thoughts forever, arrive directly at the realization of the unborn, and instantly experience bodhi, without being entangled by anything.

The next best kind of practitioner uses principle to rid himself of phenomenal appearance and realizes that self-nature is originally pure; vexation and bodhi, samsara and nirvana—all are false names that have nothing to do with self-nature; all affairs and things are dreams and illusions, like bubbles or reflections.

Do not be captivated by the arising, abiding, changing, and passing away of illusory phenomena that give rise to pleasure and aversion, grasping and rejecting. Give up your whole body as if you were dead, and the six sense faculties, six sense objects, and sense consciousnesses will naturally disperse.

Greed, hatred, ignorance, and craving for affection will be destroyed. All the physical sensations of pain, itchiness, agony, and pleasure—hunger, cold, satiation, warmth, glory, insult, birth and death, calamity, prosperity, good and bad luck, praise, blame, gain and loss, safely and danger—will no longer be your concern. Only this can be considered “putting down of all conditions.” When you put everything down forever, this is what is meant by “Put down all conditions.”

When the myriad conditions are renounced, wandering thoughts will disappear on their own accord, discrimination will not arise, and attachment is left far behind. In this instance of nothing arising in the mind, the brightness and clarity of your self-nature manifests completely. Only at this time will you have fulfilled the necessary conditions for investigating Chan. Then, further hard work and sincere practice will enable you to illuminate the Mind and see into your true nature.

Xu Yun (1839-1959)

Excerpted from Attaining the Way-A Guide to the Practice of Chan Buddhism – Sheng Yen 2006

It probably doesn't get much more essential than this piece elucidating the path of Zen practice. We all are cultivating the mind that seeks the Way and can easily accept that “Sentient beings are replete with the wisdom and virtue of buddhas; they are not two and not separated from one another.”

However, most of us struggle with curbing wandering thoughts and entanglements of various dimensions with the world around us. Meditation introduces the experience of the space between thoughts; no matter how briefly we enter that pause, we all have felt this. That is our toe hold into taming the mind; a tongue tip taste of Zen. The maturing of practice/life is not the brief time we spend on the bench or cushion, of course, but how practically we manifest it in our daily life.

While it is fine to acknowledge that the Buddha also simplified the process in”the most direct teaching is the word stop, from the expression “Stopping is bodhi,” most of us need a bit more direction on this point. However basic and elementary awareness of our breath sounds, it is the beginning tool we start with in meditation, and truly it is not as “elementary” as some more experienced practitioners may think.

Awareness of breath is also something that is with us every minute of our lives. It requires no special dress, equipment, quiet environment, or other trappings. When we are truly immersed in our breathing, there are no thoughts wandering.

That awareness brings us gently back into the present moment. For those of us who started with breath counting on the cushion, perhaps we can use an even more basic awareness of breathing to help develop more day in, day out experience of controlling wandering thoughts, without so much of a sense of “control” as it sounds.

Hopefully for this new year ahead, we can all extend our sense of practice more into each day. There are many techniques taught, but the reality is that we must pick something to commit to and stay with long enough to derive the real benefit, to “attain this wisdom and virtue that is within you.”

Refining the first steps,


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