On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

June 10, 2007

Treatise on the Essentials of Cultivating the Mind Part 2

Hung-jen (early 8th century)

Question:  Why is maintaining awareness of the mind the fundamental basis of nirvana?

Answer: The essence of what is called nirvana is serene extinction. It is unconditioned and pleasant. When one’s mind is True, false thoughts cease. When false thoughts cease, the result is correct mindfulness. Having correct mindfulness leads to the generation of the wisdom of serene illumination, which in turn means that one achieves total comprehension of the Dharma Nature. By comprehending the Dharma Nature, one achieves nirvana. Therefore, maintaining awareness of the mind is the fundamental basis of nirvana.

Question: Why is maintaining awareness of the mind the essential gateway for entering the path?

Answer: The Buddha teaches that even actions as seemingly trivial as raising the fingers of a single hand to draw an image of the Buddha can create merit as great as the sands of the River Ganges. However, this is just his way of enticing foolish sentient beings to create superior karmic conditions whereby they will see the Buddha and become enlightened in the future. If you wish to achieve buddhahood quickly in your own body, maintain awareness of the True Mind.

The Buddhas of the past, present, and future are incalculable and infinite in number, and every single one of them achieved buddhahood by maintaining awareness of the True Mind. Therefore, the sutra says: “When one fixes the mind in a single location, there is nothing it cannot accomplish.” Therefore, maintaining awareness of the True mind is the essential gateway for entering the path.

Question: Why is maintaining the True Mind the basic principle of the entire Buddhist canon?

Answer: Throughout the canon, the Tathagata preaches extensively about all types of transgression and good fortune, causes and conditions, and rewards and retributions. He also draws upon all the various things of this world, mountains, rivers, the earth, plants, trees, etc. to make innumerable metaphors. He also manifests innumerable supernormal powers and various kinds of transformations. All these are just the Buddha’s way of teaching foolish sentient beings. Since they have various kinds of desires and a myriad of psychological differences, the Tathagata draws them into permanent bliss according to their mental tendencies.

Understand clearly that the Buddha Nature embodied within sentient beings is inherently pure, like a sun underlaid by clouds. By just distinctly maintaining awareness of the True Mind, the clouds of false thoughts will go away, and the sun of wisdom will appear. Why make any further study of knowledge based on the senses, which only leads to the suffering of samsara?

All concepts, as well as affairs of the three periods of time, should be understood according to the metaphor of polishing a mirror: When the dust is gone the Nature naturally becomes manifest. That which is learned by the ignorant mind is completely useless. True learning is that which is learned by the inactive or unconditioned, wu wei mind, which never ceases correct mindfulness. Although this is called “true learning,” ultimately there is nothing to be learned. Why is this?

Because the self and nirvana are both nonsubstantial, they are neither different nor the same. Therefore, the essential principle of the words “nothing to be learned” is true.

One must maintain clear awareness of the True Mind without generating false thoughts or the illusion of personal possession. Therefore, the Nirvana Sutra says: “To understand that the Buddha does not actually preach the Dharma is called having sufficiently listened to the Buddha’s preaching.” Therefore, maintaining awareness of the True Mind is the basic principle of the entire canon.

Question:  Why is maintaining awareness of the mind the patriarch of all the Buddhas past, present, and future? 

Answer: All the Buddhas of the past, present, and future are generated within one’s own consciousness. When you do not generate false thoughts, the Buddhas are generated within your consciousness. When your illusions of personal possession have been extinguished, the Buddhas are generated within your consciousness. You will only achieve buddhahood by maintaining awareness of the True Mind. Therefore, maintaining awarenss of the mind is the patriarch of the all the Buddhas of  past, present, and future.

If one were to expand upon the four previous topics, how could one ever explain them completely? My only desire is that you discern the fundamental mind for yourselves. Therefore, I sincerely tell you: Make effort! Make effort!

I base my teaching on the Lotus Sutra in which the Buddha says: “I have presented you with a great cart and a treasure of valuables, including bright jewels and wondrous medicines. Even so, you do not take them. What extreme suffering! Alas, alas!” If you can cease generating false thoughts and the illusion of personal possessions, then all the various types of merit will become perfect and complete. Do not try to search outside yourself, which only leads to the suffering of samsara.

Maintain the same state of mind in every moment of thought, in every phase of mental activity. Do not enjoy the present while planting seeds of future suffering; by doing so you only deceive yourself and others and cannot escape from the realm of birth and death.

Make effort! Make effort! Although it may seem futile now, your present efforts constitute the causes for your future enlightenment. Do not let time pass in vain while only wasting energy. The sutra says: “Foolish sentient beings will reside forever in hell as if pleasantly relaxing in a garden. There are no modes of existence worse than their present state.” We sentient beings fit this description. Having no idea how horribly terrifying this world really is, we never have the least intention of leaving! How awful!

Part II

If you are just beginning to practice sitting meditation, then do so according to the Sutra of the Contemplation of Amitabha: Sit properly with the body erect, closing the eyes and mouth. Look straight ahead with the mind, visualizing a sun at an appropriate distance away. Maintain this image continuously without stopping. Regulate your breath so that it does not sound alternately course and fine, as this can make you sick.

If you sit in meditation at night, you may experience all kinds of good and bad psychological states; enter into any of the blue, yellow, red, and white samadhis; witness your own body producing light; observe the physical characteristics of the Tathagata; or experience various other transformations. When you perceive such things, concentrate the mind and do not become attached to them. They are all non substantial manifestations of false thinking.

The sutra says: “All the countries of the ten directions are nonsubstantial, like space.” Also, “The triple realm is an empty apparition that is solely the creation of the individual mind.” Do not worry if you cannot achieve concentration and do not experience the various psychological states. Just constantly maintain clear awareness of the True Mind in all your actions.

If you can stop generating false thoughts and the illusion of personal possessions, then you will realize that all the myriad dharmas are nothing other than manifestations of your won mind. The Buddhas only preach extensively using numerous verbal teachings and metaphors because the mental tendencies of sentient beings differ, necessitating a variety of teachings. In actuality, the mind is the basic subject of the eighty four thousand doctrines, the ranking of the three vehicles, and the definitions of the seventy two stages of sages and wise men.

To be able to discern one’s own inherent mind and improve the ability to maintain awareness of it with every moment of thought is equivalent to constantly making pious offerings to the entire Buddhist canon and to all the Buddhas in the ten directions of space, who are as numerous as the sands of the River Ganges. It is equivalent to constantly turning the wheel of the Dharma with every moment of thought.

Hung-jen (early 8th century)

Excerpted from The Northern School and the Formation of Early Ch’an Buddhism by John R. McRae  1986

This concluding chapter from early in the history of Ch’an continues the dialogue with Master Hung-jen from around the year 700.  In this section we learn more about his teaching of True Mind and also get a taste of his insights into meditation practice. The comments still leave us free to explore without anyone telling us too much about what to get out of our explorations.

These readings are born from a spirit of commitment to the Way. Hopefully Hung-jen will help us to pause and allow some new opening to reveal itself in our lives.


My treasure is the cloud on the peak

The moon over the valley

Traveling east or west

Light and free on the one road

I don’t know whether I’m on the way

Or at home.

-Muso Soseki (1275-1351)

Which way

Did you come from,

Following dream paths at night,

While snow is still deep

In this mountain recess?

– Ryokan (1758-1831)

Honoring the Solstice in both hemispheres,


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