On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

May 03, 2010

The Teachings of the Fourth Chan Patriarch Tao-shin

Tao-shin (580-651)

“When you are sitting in meditation, watch carefully to know when your consciousness starts to move. Consciousness is always moving and flowing. According to its coming and going, we must all be aware of it. Use the wisdom of a diamond to control and rule it, since just like a plant there is nothing to know. To know there is nothing to know is the wisdom to know everything. This is the Dharma-gate of One Form of a Bodhisattva.”

Question: “What kind of a person is a Ch’an Master?”

Tao-hsin: “Someone who is not disturbed either by chaos or serenity is a person with the know-how of good Ch’an practice. When one always dwells in tranquility, the mind perishes. But if you are always in a state of discernment, then the mind scatters chaotically. The Lotus Sutra says: ‘The Buddha himself dwells in the Great Vehicle. The power of meditation (ting) and of wisdom (hui) gives remarkable splendor to the dharmas which he has acquired. These he uses to save all beings.’”

Question: “How can we be enlightened to the nature of things and our minds attain lucid purity?”

Tao-hsin: “Neither by trying to meditate on the Buddha, nor by trying to grab hold of the mind, nor be seeing the mind, nor by analyzing the mind, nor by reflection, nor by discernment, nor by dispersing confusion, but through identification with the natural rhythms of things. Don’t force anything to go. Don’t force anything to stay. Finally abiding in the one sole purity, the mind spontaneously becomes lucid and pure.

“Some people can see clearly that the mind is lucid and pure like a bright mirror. Some need a year of practice and then t he mind becomes lucid and pure. Others need three or five years and then the mind is lucid and clear. Or some can attain enlightenment by being taught by someone else. The Nirvana Sutra says: ‘The nature of the mind of beings is like a pearl which falls into the water. The water is muddy so the pearl becomes hidden. When the water is pure, the pearl is revealed.’”

Therefore, we should know that there are four kinds of students of Buddhism. Those who do practice, have understanding, and attain enlightenment are the highest group. Those who do not practice but have understanding and attain enlightenment are the middle upper group. Those who do practice and have understanding but have not attained enlightenment are in the middle lower group. Those who neither practice nor have understanding nor have attained enlightenment are in the lowest group.”

Question: “The moment we are going to begin practice, how should we contemplate?

Tao-hsin: “We must identify with the natural rhythms of things.”

Question: “Should we face toward the West or not?”

Tao-hsin: “If we know our original mind neither is born nor dies but is ultimately pure and is identical to the pure Buddha Land, then it is not necessary to face toward the West. The Hua yen ching says: “Unlimited kalpas of time are contained in a single moment. A single moment contains unlimited kalpas.’ Therefore you should know that a single place contains an unlimited quantity of places, and an unlimited quantity of places is in one place.

“The Buddha causes beings who have dull capacities to face toward the West, but he does not teach people with keen abilities to do so. Bodhisattvas who have profound practice enter the stream of birth and death in order to save beings, and yet do not drown in desire. If you have the view that ‘beings are in samsara and I am able to save them, and these beings are capable of being saved,’ then you are not to be called a Bodhisattva. ‘Saving beings’ is similar to ‘saving the empty sky’. How could the sky ever have come or gone!

“The Diamond Sutra says: ‘As for an infinite number of beings who have been saved, in fact there are no beings who have been saved.’ As a whole, Bodhisattvas of the First Stage at the beginning have the realization that all things are empty. Later on they obtain the realization that all things are not empty, which is identical to the ‘wisdom of non-discrimination’. The Heart Sutra says: ‘Form is identical to emptiness.’ It is not because form is eliminated and then there is emptiness. ‘The nature of form is emptiness.’

“All Bodhisattvas think that studying emptiness is identical to enlightenment. Those who have just begun to practice Buddhism immediately understand emptiness, but this is only a view of emptiness and is not true emptiness. Those who obtain true emptiness through cultivating the Way, do not see either emptiness nor non-emptiness. They do not have any views at all. You should by all means thoroughly understand the idea that form is emptiness. The activity of the mind of those who are really proficient in emptiness will definitely be lucid and pure.

“When you are awakened to the fundamental nature of things, when you completely understand and are clearly discerning, then later on you yourselves will be considered as Masters! Furthermore, inner thoughts and outward behavior must coincide, and there must be no disparity between truth and practice. You should sever relationships with written works and spoken explanations. In pursuing the sacred Way toward enlightenment, by staying alone in a place of tranquility you can realize by yourself attainment of the Way.

“Again there are some people who have not yet understood the ultimate truth, and yet for the sake of fame and wealth guide others. Although they do not know the relative keenness or dullness in the capacities of their followers, if it appears to them that there is 112 something exceptional in their followers they always give the seal of approval. Alas, alas! What a great calamity! Or seeing that the mental activities of their followers appear to be lucid and pure, they give their seal of approval. These people bring great destruction to the Buddha’s Dharma. They are deceiving themselves and cheat others. Those who are proficient in practice consider that having such exceptional attainments as these is just an out appearance but that true mindfulness has not yet been attained.

“Those who have truly attained mindfulness are aware and discerning by themselves. Much later their Dharma-eye will open spontaneously and they can skillfully distinguish non-substantiality from artificiality. Some people conclude that the body is empty and the nature of the mind also disappears. These people have nihilistic views. They are the same as heretics and area not disciples of the Buddha. Some consider that the nature of the mind is indestructible. These are people with eternalistic views, and are the same as heretics.

“Now we shall describe the disciples of the Buddha. They do not conclude that the nature of the mind is destroyed. Although they are constantly bringing beings to enlightenment, they do not generate emotional attachment. They constantly cultivate insight, so that stupidity and wisdom are equalized. They constantly dwell in meditation, so that there is no difference between clarity and chaos for them. They constantly view sentient beings whom Bodhisattvas have vowed to save, and yet they know the beings have never had permanent existence and ultimately neither come into existence nor pass away. True disciples everywhere manifest form which is not seen nor heard. Completely understanding all things, they have never grasped or rejected anything. They have never transformed themselves into other bodily forms, and yet their bodies are everywhere in Ultimate Reality.”

Tao-shin (580-651)

Excerpted from Early Ch’an in China and Tibet by David Chappell

There is something for everyone in this profound teaching. We don’t know who the questioner is, but really it is us. Who hasn’t asked these questions in their own time? And how many have had the Fourth Patriarch to hang out with and ask questions to? So, the reading is not offered to just accumulate more knowledge of Buddhism or Zen, but to offer some real entry points into exploring. And if we did have the Fourth Patriarch to converse with, we hopefully would be asking our most pressing questions.

Twice we hear the response: “We must identify with the natural rhythms of things” to questions about the nature of enlightenment and how to practice. What does this mean? These are not answers that tell you everything. These are points of entry to explore. Perhaps we can say that back in the year 600, life was not so complicated and to be in harmony with the natural rhythms came more easily, but the human condition has not changed that much. Just the outer gadgets which have not provided us with more time to meditate or reflect.

The natural rhythm of things…this is a pressing question for us now not only for our spiritual balance, but for our very existence here now as well.

“…inner thoughts and outward behavior must coincide, and there must be no disparity between truth and practice.”

The vitality of any practice is the impact we see in our actions. Has meditation and daily life become one for us? Do our actions reflect our connection to the whole in a meaningful way?

On the Way,


Recent Journals

Journal Archives