Before the time of the Buddha Awesome Voice, any person could get enlightened, and he wouldn't need to be certified by another person. But after the time of the Buddha Awesome Voice, someone who feels he is enlightened must be certified by a Patriarch or an enlightened Good and Wise Advisor for it to really count. For example, The Shurangama Sutra lists the stories of twenty-five Sages who describe their perfect enlightenments and who request Shakyamuni Buddha to certify their attainments.
I'll now tell the story of such a certification. In the Tang Dynasty of China there was a Great Master called Yongjia (Eternal Excellence) who was born in Yongjia county of Zhejiang Province. Because he stayed in Yongjia all his life, people gave him the name Great Master Yongjia. After he left the home-life, he studied the teachings of the Tian Tai School and cultivated meditative contemplation. One day while reading The Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, he suddenly got enlightened. Soon after, he met a disciple of the Sixth Patriarch named Chan Master Xuance (Mystic Law), and told him his story. Master Xuance suggested that he go to Tsao Creek to study under the Sixth Patriarch and to request certification of his enlightenment. To do otherwise, to claim that one has become enlightened by oneself, without benefit of a teacher, would make one a follower of the externalists who believed in spontaneity.
When he arrived at Nanhua Monastery in Tsao Creek, the Sixth Patriarch was meditating. Master Yongjia, full of pride, strode over to the front of the Patriarch's meditation seat. Without even making a half-bow or full-bow, he simply grasped his tin staff, walked three times around the Patriarch's seat, and then stood and rapped his staff on the ground.
The Sixth Patriarch said, "Shramanas (monks) ought to possess the Three Thousand Modes of Awesome Deportment, and the Eighty Thousand Subtle Manners. Only when one's behavior is impeccable does one merit the name Shramana. [Shramana means "diligent and putting to rest." A Shramana "diligently cultivates precepts, concentration, and wisdom, and puts to rest greed, hatred, and stupidity."] Where do you, O Virtuous One, come from? And why are you so arrogant?"
Master Yongjia answered, "Birth and death is the only important thing, and impermanence comes with haste."
The Sixth Patriarch said, "Then why don't you embody birthless-ness; why don't you understand no-haste?"
Master Yongjia answered, "The embodiment originally was not subject to birth. When you understand, then there is no further haste."
The Sixth Patriarch said, "You have really grasped the idea of birthlessness."
Master Yongjia said, "Do you mean to say that birthlessness is an idea?"
The Sixth Patriarch said, "If it isn't an idea, then how can you distinguish it?"
Master Yongjia said, "Making distinctions is not an idea, either."
"You are so right! You are so right!" said the Sixth Patriarch, and thereupon certified him and made him his Dharma heir.
After Great Master Yongjia was certified by the Sixth Patriarch, he planned to return immediately to Kaiyuan (Primary Source) Temple in Yongjia. The Sixth Patriarch asked him to stay for one night, but the next morning he went right back to Yongjia. Because he had enlightened to the truth of the Buddhadharma in just a single evening, people of that time nicknamed him, "The Monk Who Became Enlightened Overnight." Afterwards, he energetically propagated the Sudden Teaching of the Chan School and is most noted for his Song of Enlightenment, which explains the state of sudden enlightenment. The Song is a masterpiece that will long endure and has become required reading for Buddhists.
Judging from the outside, we seem to be working hard at our cultivation here in the Chan Hall; but in reality, we are indulging in idle thinking and are not working hard at all. We may be thinking, "This is the Age of Science, and there ought to be a scientific way to get enlightened," and so we cogitate back and forth in a very unscientific way, like a fool prattling about dreams.
People who claim enlightenment have to stand up to the test; otherwise, they are simply telling a great lie and will fall into the Relentless Hells. This retribution awaits any individual who advertises that he is enlightened and has realized sagehood. I hope that all of you will take careful note of this and not speak carelessly, or else you will undergo that kind of retribution.
We wake up very early and don't rest until very late. Why do we cultivate so arduously? Because one extra minute of meditation gives us an extra minute of opportunity to get enlightened. Even though we're gathered together in the meditation hall to concentrate on the question, "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" and we cannot say that no one is concentrating on his task, those who really want to get enlightened and obtain benefit are certainly in the minority. Most people are not serious or enthusiastic about meditation; they merely go through the motions and waste time. If you spend your retreat like this, you won't get enlightened even to the ends of the future. My hope is for many people to get enlightened in this country, so that they can help Buddhism in the future.
We must not talk during the Chan retreat, nor should we indulge in idle thoughts. Apply effort with sincerity; only then can you attain a response and uncover your wisdom. Once you have wisdom, you won't be upside-down. Only if you aren't upside-down can you teach living beings. If you yourself haven't yet figured out the true principles, how can you teach others? That would simply be a case of the blind leading the blind, which is very dangerous.
Chan meditators are like farmers who sow in the spring; arduously weed, water, hoe, and fertilize in the summer; and harvest in the autumn, so that they can be full and warm in the winter. A farmer's year-long expectation is to be amply fed and warmly clothed. Investigating Chan is the same: we must carefully guard our thoughts and watch over ourselves at all times. As we walk and sit in the Chan hall, we should know whether or not we are applying effort. In general, whether walking, standing, sitting, or reclining, we should cultivate diligently. We can use whatever method we feel is right for us; there is no restriction. For example, if we feel that investigating the meditation topic is not suitable for us, we can recite the Buddha's name or cultivate the method of "stopping and contemplating." Only with a method that is appropriate for us can we succeed.
No matter which method we use, we must concentrate and get rid of all idle thoughts. When we concentrate to the ultimate point, there will be good news. If we have a profusion of idle thoughts, then no matter what method we use, it won't work for us. People who truly apply themselves don't even know when they are walking and sitting; how much less could they engage in idle thoughts? All they know is the question, "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" They keep investigating it in their minds without ever forgetting it. They're unaware of thirst, hunger, or feeling hot or cold. Why don't they know these things? It's because they are concentrating single-mindedly. They aren't aware of stiffness in their back or pain in their legs; they have no thoughts at all, except for "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" They are constantly raising the question and letting it go; dropping it, only to pick it up again. They use this skill ceaselessly, in thought after thought, at all times. When their effort reaches an extreme, they may bump into something and suddenly get enlightened.
Why haven't you been suddenly enlightened? It's because you aren't concentrated, and you don't know how to "understand your mind and see your nature." You don't know the state of returning to the origin. You don't know where your hometown is. You prefer instead to be the prodigal son who wanders adrift in foreign lands. In the end, I still say the same thing: investigate "Who is mindful of the Buddha?" until you reach a state where, "The mountains end, the waters dry up, and you fear there is nowhere left to go; there, beyond the dark willows and the bright flowers, you'll find another village."
A talk given during a Chan session in December, 1980