The goal of investigating Chan meditation is to develop wisdom and to seek liberation. We must concentrate our minds and investigate the question, "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" When we can investigate this question to the ultimate point, then we forget all idle thoughts whatsoever. We forget about eating, sleeping, and dressing, even to the point of forgetting to go to the bathroom. At this stage, the wind may blow, but it won't touch us; the rain may fall, but it won't get us wet; we are intensely and unceasingly asking the question "Who?"
This single thought is just like vajra; it is so durable and solid that nothing can break it up. We are not aware of the heavens above, the earth below, or the people in between. Our state is free of the traces of self, others, living beings, and life spans. Then we reach the point of there being "no body or mind inside and no world outside." We have united in substance with the entire universe and have become one with all things.
In ancient times there were lofty Sangha members of great virtue whose cultivation reached a level where "not even a single thought arose." A saying captures that state: "They eat all day long, yet don't know they have consumed a single morsel; they get dressed each day, but aren't aware of having put on a single stitch." They've arrived at a state of "no self and no others." Where is there any time left for them to indulge in idle thinking? They felt that if they wasted even a single moment, they could miss their chance to become enlightened. For this reason we must give our very lives to the investigation of "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" We should never rest until we find out who it is. Finding out "Who" is the very best method for controlling our idle thoughts.
In China's Yangzhou County, at Gaomin Monastery, there lived an elder monk named Miaodu, who cultivated Chan meditation to the point that, "When walking, he wasn't aware of walking; when sitting, he wasn't aware of sitting; when standing, he wasn't aware of standing; when reclining, he wasn't aware of reclining." He thought of nothing at all, except "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" One day, he needed to relieve himself. Because he was unceasingly investigating the question of "Who?" he walked by mistake into the Hall of the Heavenly Kings and assumed that the seat in front of Weitou Bodhisattva was the toilet. Just as he was about to relieve himself, he looked up and saw the image of Weitou Bodhisattva glaring at him with his Jewelled Pestle raised up high, and it scared him awake. Aware that he had made a mistake, he quickly bowed to Weitou Bodhisattva to repent and seek forgiveness from the Bodhisattva.
Why did this happen? Because Chan Master Miaodu had concentrated his mind and devoted his entire attention to investigating the word "Who." That was his sole concern, and as a result, he mistook the Hall of the Heavenly Kings for the bathroom. Someone may think, "I should imitate Chan Master Miaodu and not go to the bathroom to relieve myself, but instead go in front of Guanyin's altar." If you did that intentionally, you would be 108,000 miles away from the Way. You should know that Chan Master Miaodu was not imitating anyone else. Rather, he was single-mindedly contemplating, "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" Because his attention was devoted entirely to this question, he committed such an error. If you, on the other hand, set out deliberately to make that error, you are making a grave mistake. You shouldn't even think about doing such a thing.
It's said that "Being off by a hairsbreadth at the start will lead you astray by a thousand miles in the end." Some people are sitting in the meditation hall having idle thoughts: "How come the bell still hasn't been rung? When it rings, I'm going to stretch my legs and rest my back." Or we may wonder, "Isn't it lunchtime yet? I'm hungry as can be." Someone may even be counting the remaining time: "Twelve days have gone by, and we have nine more days to go until the merit and virtue is complete. I hope the time will pass quickly, so we can get this suffering over with." When people join a Chan Session, they ought to wish that the time would last, to give them more chances to get enlightened. Another person, as he sits, looks like someone sitting on a pincushion. He can't be still for a minute, but either changes his legs around or stretches them out to rest his back. Other people may be entering samadhi, but this guy is thinking up a storm; his idle thoughts are several layers thick. If one carries on like this, then what is the point of joining a Chan Session in the first place? Why maintain this pretense? It would be better off simply not coming in the first place; one would save oneself a lot of trouble that way.
Know, however, that we should hang the question of birth and death right between our eyebrows, so that when our eyes are open we are looking directly at it, and even with our eyes closed we cannot forget this question. We must work and cultivate in each consecutive thought; only then can we end birth and death. You, on the other hand, are not thinking about birth and death in each consecutive thought as you sit in the Chan hall. You're constantly indulging in idle thinking. You fear only that if your idle thoughts are too few, you'll take a loss! How pathetic!
People who know how to apply themselves don't indulge in idle thoughts for even an instant. It's said that, "Until we actually understand the great matter, we should be as if attending the funeral of our parents." Before we have resolved the important matter of birth and death, we should be as sorrowful as if our parents had died. In the meditation hall, we cannot let the slightest fraction of time slip by. We cannot let up for an instant. We must work hard at our cultivation at all times. When we apply effort to an intense level, there will naturally be a response. When there is a response, our skill will touch the Way. Even if you are already enlightened, you must continue to persevere and advance. Don't be lazy; don't get trapped at the "Transformation City" and stop making progress. Such ideas are the stumbling blocks of cultivation.
If we know clearly that idle thoughts cannot be realized, why do we still indulge in them? If we know very well that they are merely idle thoughts, why don't we simply clean them up? Most people have this problem of knowing something is wrong but going ahead and doing it anyway. The truth is that we still can't see through things or put them down. We are attached to this and that, attached to men or to women, and as a result, we waste all our precious time.
The time spent in the meditation session is most valuable; it is a rare opportunity that is hard to meet. During this retreat, I urge you to throw your idle thoughts out past cloud nine! Give your mind a chance to be clean and pure; concentrate on asking "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" without interruption. All of you should work hard and investigate! Investigate! Investigate!
A talk given during a Chan session in December, 1980