If you can sit in meditation until your state is such that "inside you have no body and mind," outside you have no world, and afar there are no objects," then you can realize the state of "no trace of self, no trace of others, no trace of living beings, and no trace of life spans." This state is also described as, "Thoughts of the past cannot be obtained, thoughts of the present cannot be obtained, and thoughts of the future cannot be obtained." Even if you reach this level of attainment, it still cannot be considered actual skill; it's not really very special. Suppose you can sit still for one hour, ten hours, one month, or ten months. That's only a sign that you have had a bit of response in your work, that you've attained a state of "lightness and ease." You must keep up your practice of meditation continuously, past the stage of "lightness and ease," to actually reach the level of the First Dhyana concentration.
The Heaven of the First Dhyana is known as "the stage of happiness that leaves living beings behind." It means that you have reached a stage of happiness beyond that which living beings enjoy. When you are at this stage in your meditation, you quickly enter samadhi-concentration. In this samadhi, your breathing stops, and you no longer inhale nor exhale; the breath neither comes nor goes. You're like a turtle hibernating in the winter, with its head drawn back into its shell. The external breathing come to rest, while the internal breathing comes alive; this is a phenomenon experienced by creatures in winter hibernation. When Chan meditators enter samadhi, their breath stops, but as soon as they leave samadhi, their breathing returns to normal. Please attend to this point, everyone! When you reach this stage, you cannot have the false thought, "Oh! I believe my breath has stopped!" As soon as that thought occurs to you, your breath starts right up again, immediately. You can't be careless, or else you'll lose your chance and have to start all over again.
From the stage of the First Dhyana, if you can make vigorous progress, you enter into the stage of the Second Dhyana Heaven. This stage is known as "the stage of happiness that brings concentration." When one is constantly in this samadhi, it brings along a quality of happiness which is completely unparalleled and indescribable. It's known as "taking the joy of Chan as your food, and being filled with the bliss of the Dharma." When you meditate at the stage of the Second Dhyana, "the stage of happiness that brings concentration," not only does your breathing stop, but your pulse stops as well. Please note that "stop" does not mean it's cut off for good,; when you leave this state of concentration, the pulse returns to normal.
If you continue to vigorously cultivate Chan concentration past the Second Dhyana, then you may enter the stage of the Third Dhyana Heaven. This is known as "the stage of bliss beyond happiness." That is to say, you leave coarse happiness behind and reach a level of subtle bliss that is most wonderful. In this stage of bliss beyond happiness, when you enter the state of concentration, not only do both breath and pulse stop, but also the thoughts in your mind stop, and you appear to be just like a dead person. When your thoughts stop, then you obviously have no more idle thinking.
Your breathing comes to rest, and your blood receives no more oxygen, so it stops circulating. When your heart no longer beats, then your pulse stops. At this time you entertain no further scattered thoughts. It's as if the breath were the wind, the pulse were the waves, and the thoughts of the mind were the water. If there is no wind, then there are no waves, and the water is naturally calm. As the saying goes, "The wind is calm and the waves are still." This is a temporary experience which occurs in samadhi. It's not as final as death. You can recover your normal breathing and pulse any time you please.
When you continue to apply vigorous effort in Chan meditation past the Third Dhyana Heaven, you can enter the stage of the Fourth Dhyana, known as "the pure stage free of thoughts." You have now left behind the wonderful bliss of the Third Dhyana, and the mind is pure. With the breath, pulse, and thoughts stopped and left behind, the pure, inherent, wonderful Nature of True Suchness manifests. This state should not make you feel special; it is only the Fourth Dhyana and not a sign of having realized the fruition of the Way. It is still the state of an ordinary person. Because you have not cut off all desire, if you make vigorous progress in cultivating the deviant concentration of externalist sects, you will enter the Heaven of No-thought and enjoy a state of bliss. If instead you cultivate proper concentration, then you can enter the Five Heavens of No Further Return. Only then have you actually reached the state of certifying to Sagehood.
As an Arhat of the First Fruition, you are free of idle thoughts not only when you are in samadhi, but also when you are walking, standing, sitting, or reclining. You have no attachments left. When you attain the First Fruition, you have merely cut through eighty-eight levels of Delusions of Views in the Triple Realm. You must still pass through seven more births and deaths. Don't assume that the First Fruition brings one to Nirvana. The minds of Arhats of the First Fruition are not swayed, no matter what sight meets their eyes. They are free of all thoughts when facing situations. They have only the thought of the Way as they cultivate Chan single-mindedly. Even if very attractive states appear to them, such as a lovely woman or a handsome man, their minds will not be moved. At this level, they experience no greed for wealth, sex, fame, food, or sleep. They are indifferent to all of these desires. Only when one reaches this level of skill can he be called, "One who has realized the fruition." An Arhat of the First Fruition makes no sound with his feet as he walks. His feet are an inch or so above the earth. Why? People who have attained the fruition are possessed of kindness and compassion. They are extremely concerned about not harming small insects as they walk, so they prefer to travel in the air.
Pay special attention to this point, everyone! Don't say that you've realized what you haven't realized, or that you've obtained a state you haven't actually obtained. To say such things breaks the precept against false speech. In the future, people who say such things will fall into the hells where tongues are ripped out. Whether or not you believe my words is up to you. I'm simply giving you advance warning. In Buddhist circles you can find people who claim to be already enlightened. To make this claim is wrong! Even if you're enlightened, you can't boast, "Did you know that I'm enlightened? I have the Five Spiritual Eyes and the Six Psychic Powers!" Don't advertise yourself. It's totally meaningless.
Even Buddhas and Bodhisattvas do not advertise themselves. When it becomes known that a certain person is a Bodhisattva, or that a certain person is a Buddha who has come into the world by transformation, those people will promptly leave. During the Tang Dynasty there were two such Great Masters: Hanshan (Cold Mountain) and Shide (The Foundling). Great Master Hanshan was Manjushri Bodhisattva's transformation, and Shide was Samantabhadra Bodhisattva's transformation. The two were the best of friends. Great Master Shide was an orphan, found on the roadside by the Abbot Fenggan of Guoqing (National Purity) Monastery and raised in the monastery. He worked in the kitchen boiling the water. He would pack leftover rice and vegetables into a bamboo crock and save them for Great Master Hanshan, who lived in Moonlight Cave behind the monastery. Great Master Hanshan came down to Guoqing Monastery every day to get the offering of leftovers. Since the two fellow-cultivators constantly joked and laughed together, the other monks thought they were fools and left them alone. Nobody knew they were actually Bodhisattvas' transformations who had come into the world playfully to take across living beings who were ready to be saved.
One day the Magistrate Lu Qiuyin visited Abbot Fenggan (who was the transformation of Amitabha Buddha) and asked, "Venerable Sir, in the past, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas often sent their transformations into the world. Do they still come to the world or not?" Abbot Fenggan said, "Yes, they do! It's only that we don't recognize them. Right now, the monk who boils water in the kitchen at Guoqing Monastery on Tiantai (Heavenly Vista) Mountain is the transformation of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva. His fellow cultivator is Hanshan, who in reality is Manjushri Bodhisattva. Who claims that they no longer appear in the world?" Lu Qiuyin was delighted by this news, and took his leave. He headed directly for Guoqing Monastery, intending to pay sincere homage to the two Bodhisattvas, Hanshan and Shide.
When he arrived at Guoqing Monastery, the guest prefect recognized him as an honored guest and received him with all due courtesy. When he heard that the Magistrate wished to see Hanshan and Shide, the prefect thought it quite strange. He couldn't understand why the Magistrate was interested in meeting those two fools. Although he was puzzled, he led the Magistrate into the kitchen, where Hanshan and Shide were talking and laughing hysterically, looking truly comical. The Magistrate Lu Qiuyin, nonetheless, made very sincere bows to the two of them, and then stated with utmost reverence, "Disciple Lu Qiuyin asks the two Bodhisattvas for their compassionate regard; please give instructions to this confused mortal."
Great Master Shide asked him, "What are you doing?" The Magistrate replied, "Abbot Fenggan said that you two are the transformations of Manjushri and Samantabhadra Bodhisattvas. I came out especially to bow to you and to earnestly seek your instructions." Great Master Shide heard this reply and stepped backwards. He said, "Fenggan has been prattling. Fenggan is a tattletale! He's the transformation of Amitabha Buddha! Why didn't you bow to him instead of coming to bother us?" As he spoke, he continued to walk backwards out the door of the temple and all the way to the front of Moonlight Cave in the face of Tiantai Mountain. The two men vanished right into the rock wall of the mountain.
The Magistrate watched in amazement as the two Bodhisattvas hid themselves, and he felt deep disappointment. He thought, "I must quickly go bow to Amitabha!" But by the time he returned to the Abbot's place, Abbot Fenggan had already entered the stillness of Nirvana. The Magistrate had mistaken what was before his very eyes. This is known as "Being face to face with Guanshiyin, yet failing to recognize him." Guanshiyin Bodhisattva is also here in the Chan Hall with us now, but I don't want to tell you who he is, for fear that once you know, you'll drive him away.
A talk given during a Chan session in December, 1980