False Zen – Zen/Ch’an Master Yuanwu

zen letters yuanwu koan

Yuanwu (1063-1135) was a great Chinese Ch’an (Zen) master, a key figure in Chan teachings who is most famous for writing the Blue Cliff Record. He wrote several letters which are instructive and insightful into early Ch’an/Zen teachings and in the except below he writes about false enlightenment and the perils of instant enlightenment without practice, something that has never ‘been a part of the real practice of Buddhism’:

Some people hear this kind of talk and jump to conclusions claiming:

“I understand! Fundamentally there is nothing to Buddhism – it’s there in everybody. As I spend my days eating food and wearing clothes has there ever been anything lacking?” 

Then they settle down in the realm of unconcerned order ordinariness, far from realising that nothing like this has ever been a part of the real practice of Buddhism.

Later on in the same letter Yuanwu writes:

Nowadays there are many bright Zen monks in various localities who want to pass through directly. Some seek too much and want to understand easily.

As soon as they know a little bit about the aim of the Path and how to proceed, they immediately want to show themselves as adepts.

Yet they have already missed it and gone wrong.

(The above excerpt was taken from ‘Zen Letters: teachings of Yuanwu’ translated by JC and Thomas Cleary, p. 27-29)

For more on Yuanwu’s comments on the zen way to attain enlightenment see here:

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

and

Zen: sudden vs gradual enlightenment

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Spiritual Liberation – Some Basic Practice Instructions

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Take your time with each of these, really take your time with them…

1. Do not get involved with life. Allow the body-mind to look after itself. Allow everything to come and go.

2. Relax and be still.

3. Do not take yourself to be a person, a body-mind. Here the questions ‘Who am I?’ and ‘From where does ‘I’ arise?’ can be useful initially, as can the assertions ‘I am not the body-mind-world’ and ‘I am That’. Relaxation and stillness are also useful here.

4. To rest in that state where one is aware but no ‘I’ thought arises is stillness. In time resting here will lead to realisation, but there must be no thought of realisation as this itself is a disturbance, a distortion.

5. Know that all is nothing,
Everything is nothing,
Nothing is here…
There is only That…

…not even That.

 

Letting go of Liberation

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It usually starts off with a ‘me’ or ‘I’ wanting to be happy.

If ‘I’ meditate ‘I’ will become happy or enlightened. If ‘I’ do the right practices, listen to the right teachers, read the right books, etc…’I’ will become liberated.

Here there is the triad of the ‘I’, the desire, and the desired object (that will bring the desired lasting happiness). All of these three are mental projections. Contemplate on this. Each one of the three: the me-subject, the desire, and desired object, are all mental projections.

Though almost everyone inevitably comes to spirituality and nonduality in this way, a true teaching encourages or facilitates a deep letting go, in which all our concepts of attainment (desired objects) and ‘me’ (conceptual subject) are let go of and ultimately lost.

This is the liberation that we were looking for, and it is never found by the me, and cannot be put into words.

Its depth is profound, as is its superficiality and obviousness. It is always here, as it were, as it is simply everything and all-inclusive.

There is no concept of freedom or bondage here, for both these are projections of the ‘I’, itself a projection. Or, if these concepts are here, they are not clung onto and taken seriously.

We could put it like this:
We start off as ‘I want to be happy/realised/free/enlightened’.
Later on it is seen more like: ‘no-I…only freedom…simply this’.

Now this too is liable to be made into a concept and grasped by the mind.

My advice is to listen and absorb and think about what is written above, so it is understood on a conceptual level initially by the mind. Ask questions if you need to and allow a teacher/teaching to resolve any major doubts (in Sanskrit: sravana and manana or listening and reflecting).

Then, once contemplated and understood, to let go and forget everything. Allow all notions and ideas of self and liberation to fall away. (in Sanskrit: nididhyasana or meditation/actualisation)

Perhaps sit still with a straight back, and after some chanting and simple deep breathing exercises to calm the energies, let go and simply relax. Maybe follow the breath (my preference) or use a mantra to allow the mind to become calm, then let go of these practices too.

Allow thoughts to settle down and do as they please.

Relax. Let go. Breathe. Be happy.

Allow everything to be as it is.

Notice awareness is untouched by everything and is one with everything, and you are that awareness.

Let go of all distinctions.

Notice that which was thought of as being ‘I’ or ‘me’ is actually just empty, objects on a screen, a play of colourful light and shadow, insubstantial.

The body and mind that were formally taken to be you, are just objects arising and not you at all.

Every-thing is like this, empty and formless, a play of awareness.

Don’t make this into a concept, but in letting go, let go of these phrases and allow a deep seeing to arise in its own time by itself.

Insight and clarity will naturally arise, naturally and spontaneously, in the depths of silence. There is no need to believe the teachings. Intend for any realisation to be genuine and not a mere copy of my or someone else’s words.

All insights too are just a play of Oneness, worthless and wonderful, just like everything else. Allow them to come and go in your Light.

In the midst of daily life allow yourself to meet life fully with the insight-intelligence that has been gained. This is just a letting go of the triad of me, desire and desired amidst daily living. (this is still nididhyasana)

Where there are no operative thoughts (in Sanskrit: samadhi), where are you? Where am I? Where is this precious teaching? Where is this bondage? Where is this liberation?

This cannot be put into words, but for some reason, right now, I am moved to express it like this: total peace, only peace, everything is peace, totally unattached yet excluding nothing. The illusory me not in play, plunged into the depths of stillness, one with everything. Pure innocence, total naivety, suffused with natural innate intelligence, natural, raw, ordinary, all-inclusive, no thing and simply this.

Yes, this really cannot be put into words. Re-reading the above paragraph is like reading the poetic rantings of an infatuated dog! Don’t be fooled by poetic sounding verbal expressions, no matter how nice or right they seem. It is all more illusion. Don’t get (too) involved in the poetry and words! They are a breeding ground for ego. Much better to let go of concepts, be still and be happy: allow all illusions and projections to fall away and see for yourself.

In Peace, Love and Light

 

 

Zen: an especially excellent teaching and a most essential shortcut

Branch light

The following is a letter written by the Chinese Master Yuanwu (1063-1135), It can be found in the excellent collection ‘Zen Letters’ translated by Thomas Cleary where it is entitled ‘Bringing Out the Family Treasure’.

I hope you don’t mind that I have interspersed my comments in red italics:

If you want to attain Intimacy, the first thing is, don’t seek it. If you attain through seeking, you have already fallen into interpretive understanding.

Yuanwu gets straight into it here, directly pointing out that the desire for Intimacy, or Enlightenment, itself is a barrier to it. Seeking will only yield a conceptual understanding. It is implied here that conceptual understanding is clearly not what is being aimed at.

This is especially true because this great treasury extends through all times, clearly evident, empty and bright.  Since time without beginning it has been your own basic root: you depend on its power entirely in all your actions.

What you are looking for has always been here (‘extends through all times’), is already shining (‘bright’), and is of no enduring substance (’empty’). It is the essence of you and is the power that manifests both you and your life.

You will only pass through to freedom when you cease and desist to the point that not even a single thought is born.  Then you penetrate through without falling into sense and matter and without dwelling in conceptualizations and mental images.

Yuanwu is stating we should be still. Not as something to do, but as something to stop doing (‘cease and desist’) until thoughts no longer occur. Using this method we do not fall into the traps of attachment to form, belief and dogma. What will this method eventually yield? Let us find out:

When you absolutely transcend these, then the whole world does not hide it.  Everywhere everything becomes its Great Function, and every single thing flows forth from your own breast.  The ancients called this bringing out the family treasure. Once this is attained, it is attained forever.  How could it ever be used up?

Here the fundamental insight has been recognised. Through being still, the bottom of the bucket has fallen out, and the Fundamental Essence has been recognised as being one with everything everywhere, and non-different to yourself.

Just be wary that your investigation does not rest on a firm footing, and that you will not be able to penetrate through to realization.  You must bravely cut off all entanglements, so there is not the slightest dependence or reliance. Relinquish your body and give up your life and directly accept the suchness that faces you; there is no other.

This is a warning to ensure that there is not the slightest trace of dogma, belief or attachment to conceptual views. Even after the fundamental insight has been attained, all entanglements or addictive desires are to be relinquished. We are to surrender totally, giving up our life’s dreams and ego-based desires in the process.

Then even if a thousand sages came forth it wouldn’t change you at all. Leaving it to the flow at all times, eating food and wearing clothes, you nurture the embryo of sagehood to maturity, not keeping to intellectual understanding.

Let go, let things be, let things come as they come, let things go as they go. Importantly Yuanwu hints that with the fundamental realisation already attained, it is merely the ’embryo’ of wisdom that has been obtained. It then takes time for this realisation to ripen to ‘maturity’, as the habitual tendencies to identify with the body and thoughts are gradually uprooted. This is explained in further detail in Yuanwu’s other letters, see here for example.

Isn’t this an especially excellent teaching and a most essential shortcut?

Isn’t it just!

Zen: sudden vs gradual enlightenment

yuanwu letters

Also see:

Zen (Ch’an) Master Yuanwu: The Sure Way to Enlightenment, The Way of Zen
Are spiritual teachings prescriptions or descriptions? Sudden vs. gradual teachings
Buddhism: How enlightenment happens
False enlightenment

In his letters, Yaunwu write some of the most the nuanced of zen/chan teachings we have. Regarding realisation, he writes about its sudden nature:

Without setting up stages, they abruptly transcend to realize this essence alone.  Since before the time when nothing existed, this essence has been ever still and unmoved, determining the basis of all conscious beings.  It permeates all times and is beyond all thought.  It is beyond holy and ordinary and transcends all knowledge and views.  It has never fluctuated or wavered:  it is there, pure and naked and full of life.  All beings, both animate and inanimate, have it complete within them.

However, Yuanwu also writes about a gradual process, a gradual path:

In general, genuine Zen teachers set forth their teachings only after observing their learners’ situation and potential. Real teachers smelt and refine their students hundreds and thousands of times. Whenever the learner has any biased attachments or feelings of doubt, the teacher resolves them and breaks through them and causes the learner to penetrate through to the depths and let go of everything, so that the learner can realize equanimity and peace while in action. Real teachers transform learners so that they reach the stage where one cannot be broken, like a leather bag that can withstand any impact.

Only after this does the Zen teacher let the transformed student go forth to deal with people and help them. This is no small matter. If the student is incomplete in any respect, then the model is not right, and the unripe student comes out all uneven and full of excesses and deficiencies, and appears ridiculous to real adepts.

Yuanwu then goes on to describe the training required to be a zen teacher:

Therefore, in order to teach the Dharma, the ancient worthies worked for completeness and correctness, and clarity in all facets. This means inwardly having one’s own practice as pure as ice and jade, and outwardly having a complete and well-rounded mastery of techniques, a perspicacious view of all concious beings and skill in interchange.

When such adepts met with potential learners, they examined each and every point in terms of the Fundamental. When the learners finally did understand, then the teachers employed techniques to polish and refine them. It was like tranferring the water from one vessel into another vessel, with the utmost care not to spill a drop.

Here, in another letter Yuanwu also writes of the refining process required before someone can teach zen:

Ever since ancient times, it is only those who are able to bear the repsonsibility of being a vessel of the Great Dharma who have been able to undertake the role of a Zen teacher and stand like a wall a mile high. These people have been tempered and refined in the blast furnace of the teachers of the Source, taking shape under the impact of their hammers and tongs, until they become real and true from beginning to end. Otherwise, they do not appear in the world as teachers. If they do appear, they are sure to startle the crowd and move the people. Because their own realization and acceptance of the responsibility of communicating Truth was not hasty and haphazard, when they passed it on to others they were not rushed or careless.

We all know the classic examples. Mater Rang staying with the Sixth Patriarcdh at Caoqi for eight years. Mazu at Guanyin Temple. Deshan and Longtan. Yangshan and Guishan. Linji and Huangbo. In every case it took at least ten or twenty years of close association between teacher and pupil before the pupil was fully prepared to become a teacher himself.

That is why, with the genuine Zen teachers, every word and every phrase, every act and every state resonated with the music of gold and jade.

Virtually no one in the latter generations has been able to see into what they were doing. You will only be able to see where they were really at when you achieve transcendental realization and reach the stage that all the enlightened ones share in common.

I recall this story from olden times. Mazu asked Xitang, “Have you ever read the scriptural teachings?” Xitang said, “Are the scriptual teachings any different?” Mazu asked, “If you haven’t read the scriptures, how will you be able to explain for people in various ways?” Xitang said, “I must care for my own sickness – how could I dare try to help other people?” Mazu said, “In your later years, you are sure to rise to greatness in the world.” And that’s the way it turned out later.

Hopefully you will see how, whilst an initial breakthrough or realision is to all intensive purposes instantaneous, the rooting out of ignorance takes time, it takes time for the mind to become purified by that realisation and to fully manifest the heart of enlightenment. Yuanwu talks about this more explicitly here. I have written two articles here about the relationship between the gradual and sudden paths here and here.

 

Also see:

Zen (Ch’an) Master Yuanwu: The Sure Way to Enlightenment, The Way of Zen
Are spiritual teachings prescriptions or descriptions? Sudden vs. gradual teachings
Buddhism: How enlightenment happens
False enlightenment

 

Zen master Hui-Hai: Right View and the Buddha-Eye

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Let us allow the gentle wisdom of Hui-Hai to clearly unfold the Buddha Dharma to us:

Question: What is the right view?

Zen master Hui-Hai: To perceive without perceiving any object whatsoever is the right view.

Question: What does “to perceive without perceiving any object whatsoever” mean?

Hui-Hai: Perceiving all sorts of things without grasping — that is, not being clouded by the arising of any thought of love or hate, etc. — is perceiving without any objects. If one can see without seeing any object whatsoever, that is using the Buddha-Eye, which is like no other eye.

On the other hand, if one sees all sorts of things that cause thoughts of love and hate, etc., to arise, that is known as “perceiving objects” with ordinary eyes, and sentient beings have no other kind of eyes. This is true, likewise, with all of the other sense organs.

Zen Master Hui-Hai: words are useless

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I thought I’d share another one of  Hui-Hai’s insights. He’s an expert in explaining Buddhist doctrines to Buddhist seekers. Here Hui-Hai shows us the provisional utility of words, and also points out their essential voidness. There is no contradiction in this.

Questioner: What does it mean when the sutra says: “The sound of discussion has ceased, and the role of thought is done”?

Zen Master Hui-Hai: Words are used to manifest the doctrine. After understanding the doctrine, then, words are useless. The doctrine is void, voidness is the Tao, and the Tao is without words. This is the meaning of “The sound of discussion has ceased”.

Since the real meaning of the doctrine does not give rise to a single thought or perception and because no thought or perception arises, it is unborn. Furthermore, because it is unborn, then the fundamental nature of all forms is void.

Next, since the fundamental nature of all forms is void, then everything in the world is non-existent.

Finally, since all things are fundamentally non-existent, “the role of thought is done”.

Words are used to manifest the doctrine. After understanding the doctrine, then, words are useless.

Also see How spiritual teachings work

Is there anything you can do to become enlightened?

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Q. Hi Tom. Thanks for your blogs posts. Ever since I stumbled across your site I’ve been trawling through your writings and videos and found them to be quite insightful. I wanted to ask if you think there is anything you can do to become enlightened? I’ve heard it said that there is nothing you can do, it either happens or it doesn’t, but that feels kinda hopeless to me. I know hope is not the arbiter of truth but I’d like to know what you think.

Tom: Hi _____. It’s a tough one to answer as depending on how you look at it, you could either say there is nothing you can do, because there is no ‘I’, and whatever happens will happen, which is true. Similarly all seeking implies the existence of ignorance, and all paths are for the ego and so can serve to reinforce the sense of ‘I’ or ‘me’.

But you can also talk on the level of the apparent seeker and give teachings that apparently help the apparent seeker realise that there is no separate seeker at all. The essence of these teachings is to relax, still thoughts and look, and then it can be more easily seen that the ‘me’ is an illusion, and that it always was an illusion, and then it is obvious that all paths are also a part of this grand illusion too, although they seemed apparently useful at the time.

Even when this is seen, the habitual force of ignorance can be so strong that it keeps on reasserting its hold and so a post-realisation practice or sadhana can be practiced, either formally, or often it naturally happens by itself over time.

So in summary I tend to do both, sometimes radically pointing out there is no ‘separate me’, other times meeting the apparent seeker where they are, depending on whom I’m taking to and where they are at with respect to the teachings. This tends not to be something I deliberate much over, but it’s just how the interaction tends to manifest itself when I am talking with someone seeking.

Here’s a more straightforward response I gave someone else to this question:

https://tomdas.com/2018/01/15/is-there-anything-i-can-do-to-become-enlightened/

Q. If truth is always present and available, what prevents someone from seeing it?

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Q. If truth is always present and available, what prevents someone from seeing it?

Tom: Pre-occupation with and belief in the content of thought.

Q. How can I drop all this activity and take that leap of faith?

Tom: Ignore your thoughts.

Q. How long should I ignore my thoughts for? What if I do it for a few days and nothing has happened?

Tom: This is also a thought.

Q. Is it possible to live whilst ignoring thoughts in a modern urban lifestyle?

Tom: Yes. The body-mind will take care of itself. Notice how thought is trying to prevent you from ignoring it, how it is throwing up various fears. Ignore all this.

Q. Thank you so much for holding me when I feel like collapsing 🙏

Tom: It’s my pleasure, I am humbled by your gratitude. Best wishes to you 🙏

 

Also see Nisargadatta Maharaj: Ignore your thoughts

 

Zen Master Hui Hai: does the Absolute ever change?

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It’s all too common for seekers of enlightenment to fall into conceptual traps. Rather than using beliefs to free themselves from beliefs all together, the verbal teachings are instead often clung to, like a drowning man clutching at a straw.

One concept that can be useful along the way is that of the Absolute, but like all concepts it is also a potential trap, in that we can fall into believing in the Absolute without any real experience, or worse, only a partial experience that gives us the false impression we actually know something when we in fact do not.

In this following passage we see Ch’an Master Hui Hai in dialogue with a Tripitaka master, (The Tripitaka are the traditional written scriptures of Buddhism). Deliberately Hui Hai gives the ‘wrong’ non-traditional answer initially in order to free the questioner from fixed views and show that the Teaching (Dharma) can be expressed in a myriad of ways.

At the end  of the dialogue the Tripitaka master expresses his respect and amazement at how the Southern school – the ‘Zen’ school of sudden enlightenment of which Hui Hai is part – is truly unfathomable:

Once a Tripitaka Master asked: “Does the Bhutatathata (Absolute Reality) ever change?”
The Master [Hui Hai] replied: “Yes, it does change.”
The Tripitaka Master retorted: “You, Venerable Ch’an Master, are wrong!”
The Master then asked the Tripitaka Master: “Does the Bhutatathata exist or not?”
The Tripitaka Master answered: “Yes, the Bhutatathata does exist.”
The Master replied: “So if you say it does not change, then you are just an ordinary, worldly monk. Doubtlessly, by now you must have heard that the lowest vices can be changed into the highest virtues, the three poisons into the three cumulative disciplines, the six consciousnesses into the six supernatural powers, all the defilements into Bodhi, and the most abysmal ignorance into the highest wisdom. Thus, if you say that the Bhutatathata does not change, then you, a Tripitaka Master, are really a heterodox-sect follower. [ie. a heretic]”
The Tripitaka Master responded: “If you put it that way, then I have to admit that the Bhutatathata does change.”
The Master retorted: “But if you, indeed, hold that the Bhutatathata does change, that is also a heterodox view.”
The Tripitaka Master asked: “Ch’an Master, you just said that the Bhutatathata does change, but now you say it does not change. How can that be?”
The Master responded: “If one sees his own nature clearly – which, like Mani-Jewels, can manifest itself in different colors – then he is correct in saying that the Bhutatathata both changes and does not change. In contrast, however, if one has not seen his own nature, he will, on hearing that the Bhutatathata changes, grasp at the idea of mutability. Also, oppositely, he will, on hearing that the Bhutatathata does not change, grasp at the idea of immutability.”
The Tripitaka Master concluded: “Now I really understand what is meant when it is said that the Southern Ch’an Sect is truly unfathomable!”

This last answer of Hui Hai is particularly instructive – he essentially states that the Truth expresses itself in different ways, just like jewels can be of various colours. If one has intuitively seen this Truth, then one can correctly express this truth, even with seemingly opposed verbal statements, as these statements are coming from a ‘place of Truth’. However, for one who has not seen, the verbal statements are always incorrect, even when they are ‘officially correct’, as the essential insight is not present, and the statements are not expressions of Truth but expressions of the ignorant ego-mind.

These ego/ignorance-ridden statements are not liberating – they are simply a clinging to an empty doctrine. These insight-less statements merely give strength to the false-ego that thinks it knows something, strengthening and perpetuating the ego/sense of separation of both the one speaking and anyone listening.

(Note that I use the word ego here as a synonym for ignorance, the false belief in separation or the false belief in a separate entity that authors thoughts and actions)