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.
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A perfect personality

funny face perfect person

Anyone else think that your personality has to be perfect and that every pore of your being has to exude an energy of loving kindness in order for the Freedom that already is to be realised? What a prison!

With respect to seeking enlightenment, what’s wrong with THIS, right now?

Freedom is already totally completely here.

Stop all this worrying and obsessing over the apparent individual and here it is, full and complete. No need to improve the individual or the world. Then things start to right themselves naturally, according to natural law. Not that you care. It’s just the way it is.

No need to judge and evaluate apparent ‘teachers’ – that’s more obsessing about the apparent individual, the individuality you project onto them.

Now there is nothing wrong with desire to improve oneself or the world. It is quite natural in certain circumstances. The desire to change something happens by itself when it happens. It too is Spontaneous Arising, a part of ‘what is’.

Look! See! Notice! All these phenomena are empty of any independent doer-self-entity.

Freedom is already here. What does it feel like? It feels like THIS. No need to seek a new or better experience, although that too is allowed.

THIS IS IT.

Ramana Maharshi: Self-abidance, the ‘vision of God’ and the end of suffering

 ramana umbrella

If you remain still, without paying attention to this, without paying attention to that, and without paying attention to anything at all, you will, simply through your powerful attention to being, become the reality, the vast eye, the unbounded space of consciousness.

Ramana Maharshi
Guru Vachaka Kovai
Verse 647

Tom’s comments:

Guru Vachaka Kovai is argueably the most authoritative text on Ramana Maharshi’s verbal teachings. The instruction here is simply to be still. Not to be attentive to anything at all – just to be.

Ramana then uses the wording ‘through your powerful attention to being’. Give the first part of the verse which says not to be attentive to anything, this implies that through not being attentive to any particular thing and remaining still, but by remaining aware, that is ‘attention to being’. This means that being is not something to be attentive of, ie. being is not an object of attention, but ‘attention to being’ is simply the state of being aware but not have your awareness focussed on any particular thing.

What is the reward? The reward is that we ‘become the reality’. As Ramana has stated many times, there is actually no ‘becoming’ the reality. Reality is always alredy here, pure and whole, but realising this could be called ‘becoming the reality’:

There is no reaching the Self. If the Self were to be reached, it would mean that the Self is not now and here, but that it should be got anew. What is got afresh will also be lost. So it will be impermanent. What is not permanent is not worth striving for. So, I say, the Self is not reached. You are the Self; you are already That.

Ramana Maharshi, Talk with Sri Ramana Maharshi, talk no. 251

Here are 2 other verses, also from Guru Vachaka Kovai that say essentially the same thing but using different language:

348. Having become free from concepts, which are afflicting thoughts, and with the ‘I am the body’ idea completely extinguished, one ends up as the mere eye of grace, the non-dual expanse of consciousness. This is the supremely fulfilling vision of God

349. Having restrained the deceitful senses, and having abandoned mental concepts, you should stand aloof in your real nature. In that state of Self-Abidance in which you remain firmly established in the consciousness of the Heart, Sivam will reveal itself.

In verse 348 we can see how here the emphasis is on freedom from concepts and thoughts. When the ‘I am the body’ idea has been completely extinguished, then ignorance, the cause of suffering, has been rooted out, and all that remains is Reality, which in this verse Ramana calls ‘the non-dual expanse of consciousness’ or ‘God’.

It is worth noting that this is not simply an insight teaching, but also a purification teaching in which, over time, through the repeated practice of ‘self-abidance’, the ignorance ‘I am the body’ is uprooted. Only when this is done is the vision of God fully realised.

Again, in verse 349, a similar concept is explored in a slightly different way. The senses here are termed ‘deceitful’ meaning that they promise pleasure and fulfillment when really pursuit of pleasure and fulfillment throught the senses actually leads only to the perpetuation of the cycle of suffering. Therefore we turn away from objects as sources of fulfillment and also we ‘abandon mental concepts’. Once we have done this, we are already standing ‘aloof in our real nature’. Standing in our real nature is not something we have to do, but it naturally arises once we stop attending to objects and thoughts (which are subtle objects).

The latter part of verse 349 says we should ‘remain firmly established’ in this stillness. Here, this state is also called ‘the Heart’. The ‘remain firmly’ implies the importance of practice, ie. remaining in this state for sometime. Only then will it have it effect of God-realisation or ‘Sivam revealing itself’, which is when the ignorance of the false ‘I’ has been rooted out through repeated practice.

Again, it is worth noting that unlike insight teachings which simply point out the presence of awareness/consciousness, this teaching goes further and asks us to ‘remain in that awareness’ in order for ignorance to be uprooted. In this context, remain in awareness is just a phrase to mean that we don’t seek ourwardly through objects such as sense objects (gross objects) or thoughts and concepts (ie. subtle objects).

This is the path to ending suffering, as the next verse, also taken from Guru Vachaka Kovai, states. The word mauna refers to the state of silence or stillness beyond words and the word jiva refers to the apparent individual:

350. The true vision of reality that is free from veiling ignorance is the state in which one shines in the Heart as the ocean of bliss, the inundation of grace. In the mauna experience that surges there as wholly Self, and which is impossible to think about, not a trace of grief or discontent exists for the jiva.

THIS THURSDAY ONLINE MEETING: The Structured ‘Enlightenment’ Teachings

tom-das-meetings-heart-flower

Hello everyone

This Thursday in our ONLINE meeting we start another run through ‘The Structured Teachings’. As many of you already know, this way of teaching is proving to be highly effective with several attendees already ‘getting it’ in recent months, ending their seeking and watching their suffering slip away…

We start with the basics and gradually build up from there. Eventually we go beyond all verbal teachings. The aim is to create crystal clarity, dispel the confusion that exists in the spiritual market place, and allow each and everyone of you to understand and realise the Freedom that already is here for yourself. Not to just have a conceptual understanding, but actually have a genuine lived realisation for ‘yourself’.

There are many ways to this, beliefs are not required and you can discover all of this for yourself. The Structured Teachings take you through this, step-by-step.

When:

Starting this Thusday 20th July online (8pm UK time) and the following Thursday 27th July in Kingston UK (7pm)

For more details of how to join see the meetup site: www.meetup.com/Non-duality-Kingston-London

For more details of the teachings see www.TomDas.com

Hope to see you soon

With love and friendship

Tom

 

This post was taken from here: www.meetup.com/Non-duality-Kingston-London/messages/boards/

Q: I know there is no doer, but I still keep on getting lost in thoughts and worrying about things

Think of it this way: there is never a doer, even when thought says there is one. This knowledge can set you free. Don’t worry if it seems like you’re a doer. It’s just like the sun rising and setting – it seems like the sun is orbiting the earth, but the knowledge is there telling us that it is the earth that is orbiting the sun.

Don’t worry too much about the appearances or whether or not you get lost in thoughts. Sometimes, in fact very often, thoughts needs to express themselves, and in expressing themselves you can learn about yourself on the human level/level of the mind. A bit of worry can be quite good, as it helps us prepare for future events.

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.