Simple, powerful and straight to the point!
Before Zen spread to Japan and was known as Zen, it was in China and known as Chan. Here 8th Century Chan Master Hui Hai gives us a wonderful short-cut to enlightenment or nirvana:
Hui Hai: The Shurangama Sutra says: ‘Perceptions employed as a base for building up positive concepts are the origin of all ignorance (avidya); ‘perception that there is nothing to perceive – that is nirvana, also known as deliverance.’
Questioner: What is the meaning of ‘nothing to perceive’?
Hui Hai: Being able to behold men, women and all the various sorts of appearances while remaining as free from love or aversion as if they were actually not seen at all – that is what is meant by ‘nothing to perceive’.
Questioner: That which occurs when we are confronted by all sorts of shapes and forms is called ‘perception’. Can we speak of perception taking place when nothing confronts us?
Hui Hai: Yes.
Questioner: When something confronts us, it follows that we perceive it, but how can there be perception when we are confronted by nothing at all?
Hui Hai: We are now talking of that perception which is independent of there being an object or not. How can that be? The nature of perception being eternal, we go on perceiving whether objects are present or not. Thereby we come to understand that, whereas objects naturally appear and disappear, the nature of perception does neither of those things; and it is the same with all your other senses.
[Tom: what is being signified here by ‘eternal’ perception that is independent of objects? :-)]
Questioner: When we are looking at something, does the thing looked at exist objectively within the sphere of perception or not?
Hui Hai: No, it does not.
Questioner: When we (look around and) do not see anything, is there an absence of something objective within the sphere of perception?
Hui Hai: No, there is not.
Questioner: When there are sounds, hearing occurs. When there are no sounds, does hearing persist or not?
Hui Hai: It does.
Questioner: When there are sounds it follows that we hear them, but how can hearing take place during the absence of sound?
Hui Hai: We are now talking of that hearing which is independent of there being any sound or not. How can that be? The nature of hearing being eternal, we continue to hear whether sounds are present or not.
Questioner: if that is so, who or what is the hearer?
Hui Hai: It is your own nature, which hears, and it is the inner cogniser who knows.
Before Zen spread to Japan and was called Zen, it was known as Chan in China. In this dialogue the essential gateway to nirvana and enlightenment is revealed together with several other useful chan/zen teachings from the 8th century Chan Master Hui Hai himself. Bold type has been added by myself for emphasis of certain points I felt to be particularly important:
Questioner: Is the nature of the Absolute (Chan-ju) a true void, or not really void? To describe it as not void is to imply that it has form [Tom – and how can the formless absolute have form?]. Yet to describe it as void implies mere nothingness, so what would then be left for sentient beings to rely on in their practice for attaining deliverance?
Hui Hai: The nature of the Absolute is void and yet not void. How so? The marvellous ‘substance’ of the Absolute, having neither form nor shape, is therefore undiscoverable; hence it is void. Nevertheless, that immaterial, formless ‘substance’ contains functions as numerous as the sands of the Ganges, functions, which respond unfailingly to circumstances, so it is also described, as not void. A sutra says:
‘Understand the one point and a thousand others will accordingly grow clear; misunderstand that one and ten thousand delusions will encompass you. He who holds to that one has no more problems to solve.’
This is the great marvellous awakening to the Way. As one of the sutras says:
‘The myriad forms, dense and close, bear the imprint of a single dharma.’
How then can so many sorts of views arise from the one Dharma? All these karmic forces are rooted in activity. If, instead of pacifying our minds, we rely on scriptures to achieve enlightenment, we are under-taking the impossible. Ourselves deceived, deceiving others our mutual downfall is assured. Strive on! Strive on! Explore this teaching most thoroughly!
[Tom – here in the above paragraph the emphasis is clearly on stilling the mind as opposed to mere book/scripture reading and theory]
Just let things happen without making any response and keep your minds from dwelling on anything whatsoever; for they who can do this thereby enter nirvana. Attained, then, is the condition of no rebirth, otherwise called ‘the gate of non-duality, the end of strife, the samadhi of universality’. Why so? Because it is ultimate purity. As it is free from the duality of selfless and otherness, it no longer gives rise to love and hatred. When all relativities are seen as non-existent, naught remains to be perceived. Thus is the undiscoverable Bhutatathata revealed.
This treatise of mine is not for the skeptic, but for those sharing the same view and following the same line of conduct. You ought first to discover whether people are sincere in their faith and qualified to practice it without backsliding before you expound it to them so that they can be awakened to its meaning. I have written this treatise for the sake of those having a karmic affinity with it.
[Tom – traditionally this teaching is advised only to be taught to those who are genuinely seeking nirvana/enlightenment, who are genuinely open to the teachings and who are potentially able to take the teachings on board and see them through]
I seek neither fame nor wealth. I desire only to emulate the Buddhas who preached their thousands of sutras and countless shastras just for the sake of sentient beings lost in delusion. Since their mental activities vary, appropriate teachings are given to suit individual cases of perverse views; hence the great variety of doctrines.
[Tom – Now Hui Hai will unfold the essential teaching:]
You should know that setting forth the principle of deliverance in its entirety amounts only to this – when things happen, make no response: keep your minds from dwelling on anything whatsoever: keep them forever still as the void and utterly pure (without stain): and thereby spontaneously attain deliverance.
Oh do not seek for empty fame, mouthing forth talk of the Absolute with minds like those of apes! When talk contradicts action that is known as self-deception; it will lead to your falling headlong into evil states of rebirth. Seek not fame and happiness in this lifetime at the cost of un-enlightenment and suffering for long aeons to come. Strive on! Strive on!
[Tom – the key advice here is not to stop early but to continue on your path – ‘Strive on! Strive on!’. Specifically the advice is not to start talking about this and turning this into a talking shop about the Absolute for those with busy minds who have no intention of putting the above teachings into practice. The cost of this is to miss the ‘goal of enlightenment’]
Sentient beings must save themselves; the Buddhas cannot do it for them. If they could, since there have already been Buddhas as numerous as grains of dust, every single being must by now have been saved; then how is it that you and I are still being tossed upon the waves of life and death instead of having become Buddhas? Do please realize that sentient beings have to save themselves and that the Buddhas cannot do it for them. Strive on! Strive on! Do it for yourselves. Place no reliance upon the powers of other Buddhas. As the sutra says:
‘Those who seek the Dharma do not find it merely by clinging to the Buddhas.’
Tom’s concluding comments: ‘Strive on! Strive on!’ and ‘When things happen, make no response: keep your minds from dwelling on anything whatsoever: keep them forever still as the void and utterly pure (without stain): and thereby spontaneously attain deliverance.’
Let us compare some Zen teachings with that of Advaita Vedanta and Sri Ramana Maharshi.
Hui Hai was one of the great Ch’an (Zen) masters from the 8th Century CE. This excerpt is taken from Hui Hai’s Text on the Importance of Sudden Enlightenment, Dialogue 2.
I have interspersed quotes from Ramana Maharshi and Shankara in red type to compare and contrast the teachings:
Answer: It can be attained only through the gate of sudden illumination (or sudden enlightenment).
Q: What is a sudden illumination?
A: ‘Sudden’ means instantaneously ridding yourselves of deluded thoughts’. ‘Illumination’ or ‘Enlightenment’ means the realisation that illumination is not something to be attained.
Q: From where do we start this practice?
A: You must start from the the beginning, the fundamental root.
Q: And what is that?
A: Mind is the fundamental root.
Q: How can this be known?
A: The Lankavatara Sutra says:
‘When mental processes (hsin) arise, then do all phenomena (dharmas) spring forth; and when mental processes cease, then do all dharmas cease likewise.’
The Vimalakirti Sutra says:
‘Those desiring to attain the Pure Land’ must first purify their own minds, for the purification of mind is the purity of the Buddha Land.’
The Sutra of the Doctrine Bequeathed by the Buddha says:
‘Just by mind control, all things become possible.’
In another sutra it says:
‘Sages seek from [their own] mind, not from the Buddhas; fools seek from the Buddhas instead of seeking from [their own] mind.’
‘The Wise regulate their minds rather than their body; fools regulate their body rather than their minds.’
The Sutra of the Names of the Buddha states:
‘Evil/sin springs forth from the mind, and by the mind is evil/sin overcome.’
Thus, we may know that all good and evil proceed from our minds and that mind is therefore the fundamental root. If you desire liberation, you must first know all about the root, mind. Unless you can penetrate to this truth, all your efforts will be vain; for, while you are still seeking something from forms external to yourselves, you will never attain.
The Dhyana Paramita Sutra says:
‘For as long as you direct your search to the forms around you, you will not attain your goal even after aeon upon aeon; whereas, by contemplating your inner awareness, you can achieve Buddhahood in a single flash of thought.’
Q: By what means is the root-practice to be performed?
A: Only by sitting in meditation, for it is accomplished by Dhyana (Ch’an) and Samadhi (Ting). The Dhyana-Paramita Sutra says:
‘Dhyana and Samadhi are essential to the search for the sacred knowledge of the Buddhas; for, without these, the deluded thoughts remain in confusion and tumult, and the roots of goodness suffer damage.’
Q: Please describe Dhyana and Samadhi.
A: When wrong thinking does not arise, that is Dhyana.
When you sit and see your original nature, that is Samadhi, for indeed that original nature is your eternal unborn mind. In Samadhi, there is the natural situational response of no-mind, and the ‘eight winds’ do not function.
The ‘eight winds’ are gain and loss, calumny and eulogy, praise and blame, sorrow and joy. By practising in this way, even ordinary people may enter the state of Buddhahood. How can that be so? The Sutra of the Bodhisattva-Precepts says:
‘All beings who observe the Buddha-precept thereby enter Buddhahood.’
There are those who in this way have crossed over to the other shore and attained liberation, transcending the six rafts (the six Paramitas), and freeing themselves from the three worlds (greed, anger and delusion). The great power of the ‘Enlightened Ones’ is the infinite power of the Honoured, the Courageous, the ‘Conqueror’!
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.
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
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, so this Tripitaka master is a scholar of the written Buddhist scriptures). 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)