Ch’an Cultivation



-Continued from issue #108

-By Professor Yu Kuo K'ung

1. What is Ch'an?

The question is asked by many people and answered in many different ways even though the question should not be asked in the first place. The reason is: Ch'an cannot be defined. This is comparable to the situation in physics, that no one has been able or will be able to define a physical body without missing a lot of things. Any definition of Ch'an is either unreal or useless. However, without a definition or at least a description, we do not know where to start to see our own nature. Therefore, I give the following definition:

Ch'an is one's self nature.

This definition of Ch'an is similar to defining the mass center of a rigid body as a point. It is a perfect definition. However, it does not give us any method or clue for finding the point. The above definition of Ch'an has the same flaw. If one sees one's own self nature, one does not need a definition. If one does not see one's nature, the definition offers no clue about how to see it. A definition that is useful should include a description, which will lead us to see the self nature. Such a definition was given by the Sixth Patriarch when he explained Ch'an sitting to his disciples, saying, "Inwardly, to see the stillness of the self nature is called Ch'an." When the Patriarch explained Ch'an concentration he said, "Outwardly to separate from appearances is Ch'an."

From the Sixth Patriarch's explanation we can forge the definition of Ch'an as follows:

Inwardly, Ch'an is the stillness of the self-nature; and outwardly,

Ch'an is the separation of the self-nature from all appearances.

This definition contains the self-nature as an essential entity with stillness as its characteristic, and also gives a very important way to cultivate to see one's self nature. That is the separation from all appearances. As a matter of fact, this is the only way to start the process of Ch'an cultivation. An appearance is any event or phenomenon, which is not nature; or we may say that an appearance is a part of the environment and the environment is the totality of all appearances.

2. Human Self nature

Ch'an is simply the way which leads a cultivator to enlighten to one's own nature. In other words, Ch'an is cultivation to find the answer to the question, "What is my self nature?" or simply, "Who am I?" Therefore, the first question, which must be answered firmly, is, ""Do I have human nature?" If the answer is no, then Ch'an has no meaning. If the answer is yes, then Ch'an will provide a way to see one's own self nature. This way has been found by many Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and sages in their cultivation.

In this section, descriptions of the self nature given by the Sixth Patriarch in the Platform Sutra are listed. Through these one may form a picture of the self nature.

A) "Bodhi is the intrinsic self nature. It is originally clear and pure."

B) "See your intrinsic nature which is neither produced nor destroyed."

C) "The self nature is originally pure of itself, is originally not produced or destroyed, is originally intrinsic in itself, is originally unmoving; and the self nature can produce all dharmas."

D) "Without nature there is, as well, no birth."

E) "The wisdom of Bodhi is originally possessed by all people. The Buddha nature of the stupid and the wise is basically not different."

F) "The capacity of the Heart (self nature) is vast and great like empty space, and has no boundary."

G) "All Prajna wisdom comes from the self nature, it does not enter from the outside."

H) "In all environments, your mind is in a state of Thusness. The Thusness of the mind, only this is the reality. If seen in this manner, just this is the self-nature of the highest Bodhi."

There are many other places in the Platform Sutra where descriptions of the self nature are given, but the above list contains the typical and representative characteristics. In the Platform Sutra, the following names are used as synonyms: self nature, mind, Heart, Bodhi, Dharma body, and Buddha. The meanings of these names do have slight differences in implications to suit particular situations, but they do not have any difference in reality. I will often use mind as the body of the self nature because we are used to thinking that a nature must be a nature of "something," even though this way of thinking is only a crude approximation of reality. Ultimately, the word "body" has no real meaning; it is merely a name for nature.

The descriptions of the self nature given in the Platform Sutra are not speculations or theories. They are experiential reports observed by all Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and sages who have no personal gain or desire other than to provide information and guidelines so that people in later generations" may see their own self nature. This is the greatest compassion since all Buddhas know that they cannot save a single soul if that soul does not want to be saved. One can only be saved by oneself.

From these experiential reports on the self nature, I propose the following:

Mind is a field.

This field will be called the mind field to distinguish it from other fields like gravitational or electromagnetic fields. The mind field is intrinsic and self sufficient. Hence, it is called the intrinsic self nature. As a field, it has a field strength and interacts with other fields. The field strength of the mind field is called intelligence wisdom. Due to the interactions of the mind field with others, all dharmas are produced. The mind field, like other fields, occupies all space. Hence, it is vast and great, and has no boundary.

There is no particular word to express the field strength of the mind. I use intelligence wisdom to express this single entity or notion. Intelligence wisdom is one word, not two. When referring to its separate aspects, I define them as follows:

INTELLIGENCE; The functions of the mind to acquire and apply, to analyze and judge; the knowledge of one's environment, particularly of the physical world and other living beings. Hence, intelligence is a dharma, not a nature, which is produced as a response to the stimulus. WISDOM: The capacity of the mind to understand and know the intrinsic natures of one's environment at all times. Wisdom is inherent in the mind, and they cannot be separated from each other. Wisdom is the potential of the mind.

Self nature or mind is the central entity of Ch'an and important to all cultivators, yet there is not much one can say about it.

The insufficiency of words to describe the self nature can be, understood if you try to describe to your friends a perfect mirror you have just bought. You may say, "The mirror is very shining and bright, and has no dull spot on it. It is perfect and just beautiful." What do you say after that without repeating yourself? Of course, you may say something about the frame, but that is not the mirror itself. Finally you may add, "Well, you just have to come and see for yourself to believe my words." It is difficult to describe a perfect mirror itself since there is no physical mark on it, no variation from one place to another in color, smell, and so forth. For the same reason, the vast, great, intrinsic self nature is not subject to any proper description. The self nature can be understood only when one is enlightened to it and sees it oneself.

There is another analogy between the self nature and the mirror. The mirror can show the shape and texture of a body in front of it; yet when the body is removed, there is left in the mirror not a single bit of residue. It is the same with the self nature. It shines with its wisdom on all environments clearly and makes them perfectly understandable; and yet it is not attached to the environments. That is why the Platform Sutra says, "Outwardly, to separate from appearances is Ch'an." It may not be the case that the minds of many people are separated from the environment. That is because their minds are confused and not the original one.

-To be continued.

BTTS new publications:

Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra, Vol. III. Chapter 2, Expedients. Now Available.

Surangama Sutra, Vol. II. Ten Aspects of Perception, Individual and Collective Karma. Now Available.

With One Heart Bowing to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, Vol. II. Records of Bhiksu Heng Sure and Sramanera Heng Ch’au’s pilgrimage. Available late June.