The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas holds several Chan Meditation Sessions each year, each session lasting seven days. Every year when it's time to celebrate Amitabha Buddha's Anniversary, we first hold a seven-day Buddha Recitation Session, and then we hold a Chan Meditation Session for three weeks in a row, lasting a total of twenty-one days. Every year, those who take part come at the start and stay till the finish, so that their merit and virtue is complete. I hope this year's participants will plan to stay for the duration of the session, and not quit halfway through and leave the Chan Hall, or else they'll lose the virtue they have amassed. Having wasted their time, they'll gain no benefit at all.
The posture of meditation is to sit up straight and erect. Straighten your back, hold your head up properly, and don't tip forward or tilt backwards. Lean neither to the left nor to the right. Cross your legs into the full-lotus position, that is, put your left foot on top of your right thigh, then your right foot on top of your left thigh. This is the standard posture for meditation. Because the full-lotus posture makes it easier to enter samadhi, it's known as the "demon-quelling posture" or the "vajra posture." It's also known as the "lotus posture." Sitting this way can eradicate limitless karmic obstacles gathered over eons; it can put an end to birth and death, and generate a limitless amount of merit and virtue.
It's necessary to practice this posture when you first begin to meditate. When the body has been arranged this way, let your nose contemplate your mouth, and let your mouth contemplate your mind. This is the essential secret for controlling your idle thinking. Finally, make your breath harmonious and balanced, neither hurried nor suppressed; let it be natural. Then use the meditation topic of "Who is reciting the Buddha's name?" and after a suitable period of time, your meditation will start to take effect.
The work of Chan meditation resembles a mother hen sitting on her nest. As the mother hen is thinking of her eggs, she never leaves the nest; she simply concentrates and keeps the eggs warm. She wouldn't sit on the eggs for five minutes, then run away to do some other business, and later return to sit on the eggs once again, only to run away again five minutes later. The chicks would never hatch at that rate.
The principle we observe in Chan meditation is the same. We must concentrate in each successive minute. Don't fear an aching back or sore legs. Don't be afraid of difficulty or pain. Simply concentrate with single-minded effort. Why? We investigate "Who is reciting the Buddha's name?" until "The mountains topple, the waters dry up, the tides recede, and the rocks appear," and it is at that moment that we can get enlightened.
Investigating Chan is also similar to the way dragons nurture their pearls. Dragons watch over their precious pearls at all times; they carefully attend to them at every moment. Therefore these precious pearls glow brighter each day, as the dragons guard them attentively day and night. People who practice Chan meditation are just the same, in that they never allow their minds to ramble with scattered thinking. An ancient worthy said, "When not even a single thought arises, the entire substance comes into view." We can rephrase it to say, "When idle thoughts no longer arise, the entire substance comes into view." When one is free of idle thoughts, then one can have some success.
Meditators don't think about becoming Buddhas, getting enlightened, or gaining wisdom. They simply work hard and cultivate vigorously. When the time comes, they naturally become enlightened. You can't think about when you will get enlightened. If you think like that, you can think to the ends of time, but you'll never get enlightened. If you stay in the Chan Hall, and sit and walk, walk and sit, then after a long time, you'll have a chance to get enlightened. As it's said, "Chan comes with long-time sitting."
Investigating Chan is done the way a cat stalks a mouse. The cat concentrates its energy and focuses its attention, patiently sitting beside the mousehole, waiting for the mouse to appear. As soon as it comes out, the cat pounces on it. The cat cannot slack off; once it becomes distracted, it will no longer be able to concentrate. Chan meditators are the same: at all times, they maintain proper thoughts and avoid idle thoughts. This is basic knowledge for beginners in Chan meditation.
Cultivators should not go running off to the mountains in the south or to the ocean in the north to seek the Way. The Way is right with you at all times. If you can sit in full lotus and concentrate your mind as you investigate Chan, just that is the Way. Don't let your mind hanker after remote mysteries, running outside in search of the Way, for you'll never find it there. You'll be forsaking what's near to search afar; and everywhere you go, you'll be searching for trouble. You'll be causing yourself needless hassle and making your life miserable.
A talk given during a Chan Session in December, 1980