Zen (Ch’an) Master Yuanwu: The Sure Way to Enlightenment, The Way of Zen


zen letters yuanwu koan

The following is a letter written almost 1000 years ago by the great Chinese master Yuanwu  (1063-1135). Yuanwu is perhaps best known for compiling the Blue Cliff Record, a classic zen text which comprises a collection of stories and sayings famous for their ability to arouse enlightenment in those who pondered them, together with advice on how to best approach them.

In Yuanwu’s letters, he reveals precise instructions in the ways of Zen that are written with a heartfelt tenderness for his student. This letter is taken from a compilation called ‘Zen Letters’ (translated by JC Cleary and Thomas Cleary). The letters in this compilation are all written by Yuanwu, and they cover a variety of subjects including how to teach and how to appoint a successor, but in this letter we find a clear and thorough overview of the path, perhaps the clearest within the entire compilation, with a focus on how to actually attain enlightenment: a description of the fundamental ground, how to approach it, how to realise it, and how to practice thereafter.

I hope the reader doesn’t mind that I have taken the liberty of interspersing my comments in italicised red and I have also bolded some lines for emphasis. Yuanwu starts by introducing the reader to the ‘fundamental ground’ that is inherent in each and every one of us. Here starts the letter:

Fundamentally, this great light is there with each and every person right where they stand – empty clear through, spiritually aware, all-pervasive, it is called the scenery of the fundamental ground.

He then describes the characteristics of this ‘ground’, stating that it is the basis of everything including the body and perceived world, but that it remains untouched and still nonetheless:

Sentient beings and buddhas are both inherently equipped with it. It is perfectly fluid and boundless, fusing everything within it. It is within your own heart and is the basis of your physical body and of the five clusters of form, sensation, conception, motivational synthesis, and consciousness. It has never been defiled or stained, and its fundamental nature is still and silent.

Then Yuanwu describes how realisation is obscured (ie. the nature of ignorance, avidya) , first through false thoughts or conceptual beliefs, and then how this conceptualisation leads to grasping which in turn leads to suffering or ‘the toils of birth and death’.

False thoughts suddenly arise and cover it over and block it off and confine it within the six sense faculties and sense objects. Sense faculties and sense objects are paired off, and you get stuck and begin clinging and getting attached. You grasp at all the various objects and scenes, and produce all sorts of false thoughts, and sink down into the toils of birth and death, unable to gain liberation.

In order to disillusion you of any fantastical and fanciful notions of enlightenment, in his compassion Yuanwu informs us that all Buddhas merely woke up to this essence (here called ‘fundamental basis’), that very essence that is within us all, and therefore Buddhahood is within all our reaches:

All the buddhas and ancestral teachers awakened to this true source and penetrated clear through to the fundamental basis. They took pity on all the sentient beings sunk in the cycle of birth and death and were inspired by great compassion, so they appeared in the world precisely for this reason. It was also for this reason that Bodhidharma came from the West with the special practice outside of doctrine.

Next, how to ‘clearly awaken’ to this fundamental ground/essence/basis/mind:

The most important thing is for people of great faculties and sharp wisdom to turn the light of mind around and shine back and clearly awaken to this mind before a single thought is born. This mind can produce all world-transcending and worldly phenomena. When it is forever stamped with enlightenment, your inner heart is independent and transcendent and brimming over with life. As soon as you rouse your conditioned mind and set errant thoughts moving, then you have obscured this fundamental clarity.

Before a single thought is born, that essence is already here, shining, untouched, unscathed, and in this way it is ‘independent and transcendent’. Therefore still your mind, quieten your mind, and see.
This essence is also not apart from life, so here Yuanwu describes it as ‘brimming over with life’. This essence is the basis of all perceived worldly phenomena. However, he warns that by buying into and believing in mental concepts (‘rousing your conditioned mind’), we have already made the cardinal mistake, entered into the world of suffering, and seemingly obscured that which cannot be obscured.

If you want to pass through easily and directly right now, just let your body and mind become thoroughly empty, so it is vacant and silent yet aware and luminous. Inwardly, forget all your conceptions of self, and outwardly, cut off all sensory defilements. When inside and outside are clear all the way through, there is just one true reality. Then eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and conceptual mind, form, sound, smell, flavor, touch, and conceptualized phenomena – all of these are established based on that one reality. This one reality stands free of and transcends all the myriad entangling phenomena. The myriad phenomena have never had any fixed characteristics – they are all transformations based on this light.

The method is to let everything go, let go of body and mind, forget everything so the mind is ’empty and vacant and silent’. However we are not to fall asleep. The mind should remain awake, ‘aware and luminous’.
To elaborate and be more specific, we are instructed inwardly to ‘forget all conceptions of self’. This is to remove the basic error of belief in separation. We are to forget about the distinction between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’, or between ‘me’ and ‘the world’, both of which depend on a concept of self.
Outwardly we are instructed to ‘cut off all sensory defilements’, which essentially means the compulsive or ego-driven desires which Yuanwu will touch upon later in this letter. These sensory defilements are themselves contingent on ‘conceptions of self’, but it is important to cut these off too as due to force of habit they may persist even when the illusory separation is seen through. Hence the need for practice.
Yuanwu now beautifully describes the fruit of this practice and in having faith in what is realised:

If you can trust in this oneness, then with one comprehended, and with one illuminated, all are illuminated. Then in whatever you do, it can all be the indestructible true essence of great liberation from top to bottom.

Thus far Yuanwu has instructed the reader how to realise the all-pervading yet unchanging essence, and also to realise that perceived life if non-separate from this essence. Now he goes further to explain what we should do once this essential mind has been realised.
Note that so far he has used the words ‘fundamental ground’, ‘fundamental basis’, ‘mind’, ‘inner heart’, ‘true reality’, ‘oneness’, and ‘essence’ all as synonyms to beautifully point to that-which-has-no-name. Here, in the next passage he refers to it as ‘mind’:

You must awaken to this mind first, and afterward cultivate all forms of good. Haven’t you seen this story? The renowned poet Bo Juyi asked the Bird’s Nest Monk, “What is the Way?” The Bird’s Nest Monk said “Don’t do any evils, do all forms of good.” Bo Juyi said “Even a three-year-old could say this.” The Bird’s Nest Monk said, “Though a three-year-old might be able to say it, an eighty-year-old might not be able to carry it out.”

This is a classic teaching of insight first, followed by cultivation or purification. Realisation of the fundamental essence which remains untouched is good as a start, but without purifying the mind or ‘cultivating goodness’, the enlightenment is not complete. The age-old habitual afflictions may otherwise continue. At worst they can wrestle away the realisation resulting in a ‘I got it! I lost it’ syndrome where the seeker goes back and forth wondering why their realisation of yesterday is not firm and secure, and at best the afflictions continue and this causes suffering and discomfort in the relative phenomenal world, both to the seeker and those around him/her.
Purification or ‘cultivation of all forms of good’ can occur prior to and/or after realisation of the fundamental essence (a part of the insight teachings, as I teach them), but can only gain deeper fruition post-realisation when the illusion of separation is starting to be seen through.
Yuanwu continues:

Thus we must search out our faults and cultivate practice; this is like the eyes and the feet depending on each other. If you are able to refrain from doing any evil and refine your practice of the many forms of good, even if you only uphold the elementary forms of discipline and virtue, you will be able to avoid sinking down to the of animals, hungry ghosts and hell-beings. This is even more the case if you first awaken to the indestructible essence of the wondrous, illuminated true mind and after that cultivate practice to the best of your ability and carry out all forms of virtuous conduct.

Yuanwu reiterates the same point again, stating that we should actively find our faults and seek to remedy them. This is the case prior to awakening-to-essence, but even more effective once awakening has occurred.

Let no one be deluded about cause and effect. You must realize that the causal basis of the hells and the heavens is all formed by your own inherent mind.

Here Yuanwu is talking about karma, or cause and effect, stating that it is nothing but our own minds and our afflictions (or lack of them) that will create our future ‘hells and heavens’.
Next Yuanwu goes into more details on how to cultivate this good, or how to purify the mind:

You must keep this mind balanced and in equanimity, without deluded ideas of self and others, without arbitrary loves and hates, without grasping and rejecting, without notions of gain and loss. Go on gradually nurturing this for a long time, perhaps twenty or thirty years. Whether you encounter favorable or adverse conditions, do not retreat or regress—then when you come to the juncture between life and death [the last moment of your life], you will naturally be set free and not be afraid. As the saying goes “Truth requires sudden awakening, but the phenomenal level calls for gradual cultivation”.

This instruction is similar to Krishna’s injunction to Arjuna in Chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita when he states that ‘yoga is evenness of mind’. Yuanwu reiterates the importance of being equanimous and again not to engage in concepts of self (and others), and the outward manifestation of this as love/hate, grasping/rejecting, loss/gain.
Whilst awakening to the essence is sudden, changes on the phenomenal level take time. Therefore ‘go on nurturing this for a long time’.
This last line, which I have bolded, is one of my favourites. Yuanwu nicely captures in words something I have often struggles to articulate: ‘Truth requires sudden awakening, but the phenomenal level calls for gradual cultivation’. Beautiful!. 
Next Yuanwu goes on to warn against an intellectual egoic approach that he sees all too commonly. In his other letters he also warns against an overly sentimental or emotional approach too, and recommends ‘forgetting thoughts and feelings and finding independent realisation’ (Letter entitled Leaping out of the Pit, p. 78). Again, the solution is to remain inwardly quiet in mind and not to just dabble in conceptual understanding:

I often see those who are trying to study Buddhism just use their worldly intelligence to sift among the verbal teachings of the buddhas and ancestral teachers, trying to pick out especially wondrous sayings to use as conversation pieces to display their ability and understanding. This is not the correct view of the matter. You must abandon your worldly mentality and sit quietly with mind silent. Forget entangling causes and investigate with your whole being. When you are thoroughly clear then whatever you bring forth from your own inexhaustible treasury of priceless jewels is sure to be genuine and real.

Next is a summary: awaken to essence, then cultivate good: arouse compassion, have no (inward) concept of self/others, remove (outward) attachments. Then wisdom will manifest.

So first you must awaken to the Fundamental and clearly see the true essence where mind equals Buddha. Detach from all false entanglements and become free and clean. After that, respectfully practice all forms of good, and arouse great compassion to bring benefits to all sentient beings. In all that you do, be even and balanced and attuned to the inherent equality of all things – be selfless and have no attachments. When wondrous wisdom manifests itself and you penetrate through to the basic essence, all your deeds will be wonder-working. Thus it is said, ‘Just manage to accept the truth – you won’t be deceived.”

Implicit in this is that ‘wondrous wisdom’ has not yet manifested when the Fundamental Essence has been realised. The ‘wondrous wisdom’ requires both realisation of the Fundamental essence (what in my teachings I call insight) together with a removal of all that is not good (what I call purification in the way I teach).

Make enlightenment your standard, and don’t feel bad if it is slow in coming. Take care!

Here ends this wonderful letter from Yuanwu!
He reminds the student not to desire anything less than full and complete enlightenment. Yes, it may take time, but do not be disheartened and get to work now!
My gratitude to Yuanwu, his student, the translators who made the reading of this text in English possible, and to all other beings and objects that contributed towards this wonderful expression. I hope you have found it, and my commentary, of benefit.
Wishing you peace.

Zen story: a cup of tea

zen tea cup chan

As some of you know, I love a good zen story, and this one is one of my favourites – not to mention that it is a classic.

Since I’ve started teaching and sharing this realisation, I can doubly appreciate how important this teaching is. So many seekers come loaded with their preconceived ideas, and it makes the simple essence difficult to pierce through. This version of the story is taken from the wonderful book ‘Zen Flesh, Zen Bones’ compiled by Paul Reps, and is the first of the Zen stories given – and with good reason too. Here is it:

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. ‘It is overfull. No more will go in!’

‘Like this cup,’ Nan-in said, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’

Empty your cup completely, then insight can arise by itself, naturally and spontaneously. Empty yourself completely.

The ‘middle way’ between eternalism and nihilism

nagarjuna buddhism tibetan
Nagarjuna as depicted in Tibetan Buddhism

In Mahayana and Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism, our True Nature (also known as Buddha nature, Reality, Mind, Ground, Knowledge, Awareness, etc.) is said to be beyond all concepts and all definitions. Typically this is expanded upon as follows:

Mind/True Nature is beyond all concepts or philosophical notions:
1. It cannot be said to ‘exist’
2. It cannot be said to ‘not exist’
3. It cannot be said to ‘both exist and not exist’
4. It cannot be said to ‘neither exist or not exist’

As far as I’m aware, the first Buddhist commentator to put it in these terms was Nagarjuna, who wrote a much more comprehensive analysis along these lines in around 200 years BCE in his text Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mula-madhamaka-karika). Since Nagarjuna, countless other Buddhist schools including most of the Tibetan Buddhist schools, have also adopted this phrasing in order to help steer themselves away from the danger or wrong/false conceptual views.

If we adopt this understanding, we are safeguarded against wrong views and the suffering that results from that. Many philosophical or spiritual systems fall into one of more of these traps. For example, by positing some kind of True Nature that definitely exists (ie. point 1), we can fall into the trap of eternalism in which we (the ego) cling to a concept of (belief in) an eternal permanent essence or self. Or we can go to the opposite extreme and say there is no essence of Mind or True Nature (point 2), which is nihilism, saying that there is no ‘me’ or ‘essence of me’ at all.

…we can fall into the trap of Eternalism in which we cling to a concept of an eternal permanent essence or self…Or we can go to the opposite extreme of Nihilism and say there is no True Nature…that there is no ‘me’ or ‘essence of me’ at all.

However, the analysis does not stop there. It goes on to warn about those who cling to the concept that ‘our True Nature/Mind is beyond both existence and non-existence’ (point 3). This is really a belief in a type of transcendence, which is really just believing in another type of existent permanent self, and so we have unwittingly fallen back into eternalism again.

Lastly Nagarjuna says you also cannot cling to the view that the true nature is ‘none of the above’. Basically Nagarjuna leaves us with nowhere to stand at all. The ego-mind is constantly trying to find a conceptual position on which it can lay its hat, but Nagarjuna has removed all the pegs from the hat-stand!

Basically Nagarjuna leaves us with nowhere to stand at all. The ego-mind is constantly trying to find a conceptual position on which it can lay its hat, but Nagarjuna has removed all the pegs from the hat-stand!

Nagarjuna called this the ‘middle way’ between eternalism and nihilism, or Madhamaka, and a new Madhamaka school of Buddhism was founded upon this work. Note this is different from the middle way of the original Buddha whose middle way between extreme asceticism/self-mortification and addiction to indulging in sense pleasures.

Nagarjuna also warns us that this ‘middle way’ itself should not be lent upon as some kind of truth where the ego can safely hang its hat.

Nagarjuna also warns us that this ‘middle way’ itself should not be lent upon as some kind of truth where the ego can safely hang its hat.

The purpose of this exposition is to allow us to see how we cling to concepts and then remove these false views/beliefs. Like all Buddhist teachings, when the job of the teaching is done, in this case when the false beliefs have been seen for what they are, we should also let go of the teaching and not rest on this either: ‘The essence of mind is beyond all concepts and definitions’.

A complete teaching: Relax. Listen to the beat of the drum.



Listen to the beat of the drum.

There’s no-one here!

Tom Das

This pithy statement actually encapsulates the entire teaching. How? Let me explain:


This refers to generating peace, and relaxation primarily of the mind. Like a dense fog clearing in the heat of the morning sun, allowing the mind to calm and thoughts to lessen gives rise to the conditions in which clarity of seeing-understanding can arise.

As we practice being peaceful, we naturally become happier: a warmth in our heart naturally blossoms as our addictive pleasure-seeking desires weaken and fade. We learn to be happy where we are, and then we pass beyond the need for the body-mind to even be happy or at peace. Gradually compusive desires fall away and we no longer suffer if we do not receive what we want. Our compulsive desires fade, and only preferences remain.


This refers to the insight part of the teaching, the essence of the teaching. It is clear seeing-understanding. As the morning fog clears, things can be seen for what they are, as they are, brightly illuminated by the sun of knowledge/insight/understanding.

…to the beat of the drum.

What do we listen to? What are we looking at? The drum can represent the body-mind entity, an object in the world, or just a simple drum. The point is to see things as they are. As the drum beats, we can watch it, hear it, follow its mechanism.

We can see how there is nobody inside the drum making a noise. We can see how the sound is an automatic  reflexive response when the skin is struck with the striking implement. We can see how the drum is empty, and the resonance within the empty space (full of air) creates the reverberating sound.

We can see how this is true of all things, how all things act and function without there being a separate doer-entity that initiates and creates its actions. Rather there is a natural spontaneously self-expressing interdependence and non-separation.

There’s no-one here!

Like the drum, we are essentially empty, meaning there is no trace whatsoever of a separate individual doer/self. This is the essential realisation of freedom.

It is not that the appearance of the body-mind goes or changes, or that you lose the experiential perspective of being a particular body-mind. No. Perception from the apparent perspective of the body-mind remains.

The term ‘no-one’ refers specifically to no-doer. It is the seeing that there never was a separate doer-entity. It is seeing that this doer was created by thought, it was imagined by thought and believed to exist by thought.

A summary

Through generating peace (Relax…) the grip of thought was loosened, through observing (Listen…) things were examined with the intention of seeing things (…the drum…) as they are. Comparing what is seen against the content of our thoughts, it is revealed that the concept of doership does not accurately reflect the reality of what is perceived: there is no doer.

The concept of doership has been operating for so long within most of us. It is this concept that causes our suffering. The understanding that there is no-doer can then act to root out the concept of doership and remove suffering.

What we are left with is what was always here: this. It doesn’t have to be named, you don’t have to put it in words, you don’t have to carve it up using the knife of concepts (although you can if yo want). It’s just whatever’s happening, spontaneously arising, however it arises.



Poetry: no way to talk about this

crescent moon.jpg

When this is seen,
It is seen there are so many ways to talk about this,
So many ways to guide others to this,
So many helpful ways,
– yet all of them false.

All ways are false,
All descriptions are false.
The Truth cannot be contained in words:
The best teaching is whatever works.

No self, True self, or just Self?
Freedom, Enlightenment or Bliss?
Emptiness, Fullness, or Infinite?
Personal, impersonal, or no story at all?
Duality, non-duality? Both, neither?

All can be helpful concepts pointing the way,

The proverbial finger points at the moon,
Don’t cling to the finger!


Zen Master Huang Po: how to remove our illusions

Q: Illusion can hide from us our own mind, but up to now you have not taught us how to get rid of illusion.

zen circle

A: The arising and the elimination of illusion are both illusory. Illusion is not something rooted in Reality; it exists because of your dualistic thinking.

If you will only cease to indulge in opposed concepts such as ‘ordinary’ and ‘Enlightened’, illusion will cease of itself. And then if you still want to destroy it wherever it may be, you will find that there is not a hairsbreadth left of anything on which to lay hold.

This is the meaning of: ‘I will let go with both hands, for then I shall certainly discover the Buddha in my mind’.

The arising and the elimination of illusion are both illusory…If you will only cease to indulge in opposed concepts such as “ordinary” and “Enlightened,” illusion will cease of itself.

Q: If there is nothing on which to lay hold, how is the Dharma [The Teaching, Enlightenment] to be transmitted?

A: It is a transmission of Mind with Mind.

Huang Po Zen Teachings

Q: If Mind is used for transmission, why do you say that Mind too does not exist?

A: Obtaining no Dharma whatever is called Mind transmission. The understanding of this implies no Mind and no Dharma.

Q: If there is no Mind and no Dharma, what is meant by transmission?

A: You hear people speak of Mind transmission and then you talk of something to be received. So Bodhidharma [the first Zen patriarch, the ‘founder of zen’] said:

The nature of the Mind when understood,
No human speech can compass or disclose.
Enlightenment is naught to be attained,
And he that gains it does not say he knows.

If I were to make this clear to you, I doubt if you could stand up to it.

Taken from The Zen Teaching of Huang Po (Chun Chou record no. 32)

Zen Master Huang Po: stuffing yourself with knowledge

zen mountains

If you now set about using your minds to seek Mind, listening to the teaching of others, and hoping to reach the goal through mere learning, when will you ever succeed? Some of the ancients had sharp minds; they no sooner heard the Doctrine proclaimed than they hastened to discard all learning. So they were called, ‘Sages who, abandoning learning, have come to rest in spontaneity’.

In these days people only seek to stuff themselves with knowledge and deductions, seeking everywhere for book-knowledge and calling this ‘Dharma-practice’ [true practice of The Way]. They do not know that so much knowledge and deduction have just the contrary effect of piling up obstacles. Merely acquiring a lot of knowledge makes you like a child who gives himself indigestion by gobbling too many curds.

Merely acquiring a lot of knowledge makes you like a child who gives himself indigestion by gobbling too many curds.

Huang Po Zen Teachings

Those who study the Way according to the Three Vehicles [the 3 main Buddhist schools of Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism] are all like this. All you can call them is people who suffer from indigestion. When so-called knowledge and deductions are not digested, they become poisons, for they belong only to the plane of samsara [the plane of suffering, the unenlightened state]. In the Absolute, there is nothing at all of this kind.

So it is said: ‘In the armoury of my sovereign, there is no Sword of Thusness’. All the concepts you have formed in the past must be discarded and replaced by void…The canonical teachings of the Three Vehicles are just remedies for temporary needs. They were taught to meet such needs and so are of temporary value and differ one from another. If only this could be understood, there would be no more doubts about it.

Above all it is essential not to select some particular teaching suited to a certain occasion, and, being impressed by its forming part of the written canon, regard it as an immutable concept. Why so? Because in truth there is no unalterable Dharma [Teaching, Teaching method] which the Tathagata [The Buddha; a term the Buddha often referred to himself by] could have preached. People of our sect would never argue that there could be such a thing. We just know how to put all mental activity to rest and thus achieve tranquillity. We certainly do not begin by thinking things out and end up in perplexity.

Because in truth there is no unalterable Dharma…We certainly do not begin by thinking things out and end up in perplexity. 

Taken from The Zen Teaching of Huang Po (Chun Chou record no. 30)

Zen Master Huang Po: Studying the Way

Huang Po Zen Teachings

Regarding this Zen Doctrine of ours, since it was first transmitted, it has never been taught that men should seek for learning or form concepts. ‘Studying the Way’ is just a figure of speech. It is a method of arousing people’s interest in the early stages of their development

In fact, the Way is not something which can be studied. Study leads to the retention of concepts and so the Way is entirely misunderstood. Moreover, the Way is not something specially existing; it is something called Mahayana Mind – Mind which is not to be found inside, outside, or in the middle. Truly it is not located anywhere.

‘Studying the Way’ is just a figure of speech…In fact, the Way is not something which can be studied.

The first step is to refrain from knowledge-based concepts. This implies that if you were to follow the empirical method to the utmost limit, on reaching that limit you would still be unable to locate Mind.

The way is spiritual Truth and was originally without name or title. It was only because people ignorantly sought for it empirically that the Buddhas appeared and taught them to eradicate this method of approach.

The first step is to refrain from knowledge-based concepts.

Fearing that no one would understand, they selected the name ‘Way.’ You must not allow this name to lead you into a mental concept of a road. So it is said, ‘When the fish is caught we pay no more attention to the trap.’

When body and mind achieve spontaneity, the Way is reached and Mind is understood.

A shramana [seeker, monk] is so called because he has penetrated to the original source of all things. The fruit of attaining the shramana stage is gained by putting an end to all anxiety; it does not come from book-learning.

Taken from The Zen Teaching of Huang Po (Chun Chou record no. 29)