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’.

The ugly duckling didn’t need to become a swan. It was already a swan.

swan reflection

The ugly duckling didn’t need to become a swan. It was already a swan.

Contemplate the following points:

  • Freedom is here already. Totally here. (You don’t need to achieve it)
  • No separate doer-entity is already the case. (You don’t need to remove anything)
  • Awareness already accepts everything that happens within it and is already unattached from objects/untouched by objects. (You do not need to let go)
  • Awareness, in our direct experience, is ever-present and constant. It is the essence of who we are (experientially speaking). (This is the basis of emotional security: all emotions come and go but our essence remains untouched).
  • Reliance upon (limited) objects to give lasting happiness results in inevitable suffering. (There is no need to compulsively chase subtle or gross objects)

Look, investigate, and see things as they are.

Various teachings can help you along the way, but in essence, what more needs to be done?

Note, it can take time for all this to be seen, and thankfully for the seeker, there are a set of teachings that can guide one through this process. I call these ‘the structured teachings’, and it forms the basis of the way I share this message. Please see tomdas.com/events for further information or the video below for an introduction.

Q. I find I am unable to practice genuine acceptance in my life. Lots of resistance keeps on coming up. Can you help?

Tom: Practicing acceptance is a powerful teaching, but ultimately if you think this is about accepting or not-resisting, then you are identified with the body-mind entity, as it is the mind that accepts or resists.

See this: acceptance and resistance are both objects that appear spontaneously to you. There is no need to change anything, no need to accept or reject, no need to imagine there is a separate doer-self there.

What is, is. Simple.

Ramana Maharshi: a blemish to complete surrender

Ramana smiling

Ramana Maharshi:

Know well that even performing tapas (spiritual practice) and yoga with the intention ‘I should become an instrument in the hands of the Lord Siva’ is a blemish to complete self-surrender, which is the highest form of being in His service.
(Guru Vachaka Kovai, verse 471)

Sri Sadhu Om’s Comments:

Since even the thought ‘I am an instrument in the Lord’s hand’ is a means by which the ego retains its individuality, it is directly opposed to the spirit of complete self-surrender, the ‘I’-lessness. Are there not many good-natured people who engage themselves in prayers, worship, yoga and such virtuous acts with the aim of achieving power from God and doing good to the world as one divinely commissioned? It is exposed here that even such endeavours are egotistical and hence contrary to self-surrender.

Is enlightenment an experiential or energetic shift?

hills and pool

Often enlightenment is taught as being some kind of experiential shift. But is this true? This post will attempt to explain and illustrate how it all works. So is enlightenment an experiential shift? Yes and no. The essential factor that changes occurs in the mind. Fundamentally the experience doesn’t change. What changes is the way experience is understood. Understanding is the key.

Let me illustrate this with an example:

eg. If you realise that Father Christmas doesn’t exist, and that he never existed, it will dramatically change the way you experience Christmas: the days before Christmas will feel different, it will feel different going to bed on Christmas eve, and it will be a different experience seeing your presents in the morning under the Christmas tree.

Now, is this an experiential shift?

Well it may seem that way, but actually what has happened is that a belief/thought that was once taken to be true is now seen to be false, and that understanding in turn has changed the way we experience the same set of events.

I italicise ‘same set of events’, as the raw sensory experience of life remains unchanged both before and after enlightenment. All that changes is understanding, and that change is at the level of the mind/thought. Understanding is the key.

To put it more simply perhaps, the experiential shift, if it occurs at all (it may not), is a symptom of right understanding, which is the essential underlying cause.

How this affects teaching enlightenment

Now, if a teacher who is genuinely enlightened does not understand what has happened to them, then they may teach that enlightenment is some kind of experiential shift. Because that’s how it can feel. This may happen if if they have not come to this realisation through a teaching such as Buddhism or Vedanta, both of which explicitly emphasise understanding on the level of the mind as being central, or if the teacher has not sufficiently analysed their experience well enough in order to teach it effectively. When the latter happens, the results is often a very vague teaching which is imprecise and difficult to understand. This reduces the effectiveness of the teaching.

This brings me to another point: just because someone is enlightened, doesn’t mean they can teach effectively. A comparable example is just because you can speak English, doesn’t mean you understand the grammar, syntax and other rules and techniques that are often very useful in teaching someone else English. This understanding of grammar, for example, greatly increases the efficiency of the teaching.

The same goes for enlightenment, the end of suffering: there are many beautiful techniques and lovely teachings that mean that the teaching works much more effectively at sharing this wonderful Understanding.