Ch’an Cultivation

By Upasaka Yu Kuo K’ung

Good and bad, fortune and misfortune, like and dislike are all the products of dichotomy and dualism. They are the result of comparisons, which depend on a chosen referential frame. But comparisons are thoughts, and thoughts produce marks. On the other hand, the consequence of dwelling also produces thoughts. Hence, thought, mark, and dwelling cannot be separated, and they form a cycle. Afflictions and all human responses, pleasant and unpleasant, are all manufactured in this cycle. This cycle forms a bondage, which absorbs the human freedom and locks the clear mind to the environment. Hence, the mind is distorted and human freedom is lost. Particularly, the cycle firmly and completely locks the mind to the human body. Therefore, when the body stops functioning, one dies with one's body. For this reason, the cycle is called the death lock.

The key to open the death lock of thought mark dwelling is no thought, no mark, and no dwelling. No thought, no mark, and no dwelling are the three pillars of Ch'an cultivation. The Sixth Patriarch says in the Platform Sutra, "Good Knowing Advisors, this Dharma door of mine, from the past onwards, has been established from the first with no thou" as its doctrine, no-mark as its substance, and no dwelling, as its basis. No mark means to be apart from marks while in the midst of marks. No thought means to be without thought while the midst of thought. No dwelling is the basic nature of human beings."

      The Sixth Patriarch further explains the key to the death lock, saying, "In the world of good and evil, attractiveness and ugliness, friendliness and hostility, when faced with language which is offensive, critical, or argumentative, you should treat it all as empty and have no thought of revenge. In every thought, do not think of former states. If past, present, and future thoughts succeed one another without interruption, it is bondage. Not to dwell in dharmas from thought to thought is to be free from bondage. That is to take no dwelling as the basis.'

"Good Knowing Advisors, to be separate from all outward marks is called 'no mark.' The ability to be separate from marks is the purity of the Dharma's substance. It is to take no mark as the substance."


In the Platform Sutra, the Sixth Patriarch also advised us, saying, "In every thought, constantly separate from the en­vironment. If you merely do not think of anything and completely rid yourself of thought, as the last thought ceases, you die and undergo rebirth in another place. This is a great mistake of which students of Tao should take heed."

Thought is the result of the transformations of wisdom, which is inherent in the self nature. Therefore, if one rids himself completely of thought, he has no wisdom. And wisdom is freedom. A human being has no wisdom and no freedom, then what is he? Just a corpse! Let us call the thought, which comes directly from wisdom or the self nature the first thought or the nature thought, and thought, which comes from the result of dwelling on the environment the second thought. The first thought is a natural response, which contains no ego, while the second thought is a learned response, which contains the ego as an essential element. It is due to the second thought that human beings have afflictions and defilements. It is due to the second thought that we cannot see the true nature of all things. It is due to the second thought that we cannot realize and enlighten our own self nature. It is also due to the second thought that we dwell in our physical bodies. This very dwelling locks us into the wheel of birth and death, life after life.

Words are coined to express experiences one has had. It is possible to communicate an experience to another person only if the other one has had the same or similar experience. But how do people know whether or not they have had the same experience? They don't know unless they can compare their minds directly. If direct comparison is not possible, the communication is only an approximation. The goal of the communication is accomplished only through trial and error, and mainly through understanding.

The word "nature thought" is coined to express a complete notion; it is not a combination of the thought, which is used, in daily language, with a little bit extra of nature added. To understand the meaning of the nature thought completely, one must experience it through cultivation. One may wonder and ask, "How can I cultivate without understanding the meaning of the nature thought?" This seems to be a rational question, but it does not have an important place in Ch'an cultivation. In this aspect, a Ch'an cultivator is like a person who wants to be a gourmet cook. He does not stop eating while he learns and practices in the kitchen. We know that the second thoughts are produced by association and comparison. The second thoughts may be transformed into many different forms, but in general, they can be grouped into three categories: greed, hatred, and stupidity. Envy and jealousy, anger and detestation, hostility and animosity, pride and arrogance, and so forth, are either second thoughts or their transformations. There are many others which even have some attractive names, like aggressiveness, popularity, fame, wealth, power, and authority, and so forth. One should notice that those with good names have the same root as the bad ones. Good is singled out only due to the existence of the bad. The good and the bad are both the products of the dichotomy and duality.

However, one must be aware that the order of eradication is very important. Eradicate the bad, then the good; and not the other way around. In general, Ch'an cultivation (or life) is a non conservative process, and it is irreversible. One of the processes A -> B and B -> A may transform a worldly man into a Buddha and the other a Buddha into a worldly man.

At this time, one may ask, "How do I know which is the right way to cultivate?" There are two sources:

A) Read books on Ch'an cultivation which were written by enlightened ones, not by Ch'an scholars.

B) Follow an enlightened Ch'an Teacher.

To find an enlightened Ch'an Teacher is most important, and you are fortunate if you can is so. But it must be remembered that the Ch'an Teacher cannot cultivate for you. A teacher is not a proxy.

Ch'an (self nature) cannot be completely understood without cultivation. This is the place where "faith" is required. This faith is faith in your own nature, not in anything or anybody outside of it. Outside one's own mind, there is no self nature, no Buddha. Therefore, during Ch'an cultivation, if a Buddha appears to show you what the self nature should be, scold him off. He may be a demon with a Buddha's clothes. A cultivator has to cultivate and prove the ultimate self nature for himself and by himself. A cultivator searching for the self nature is like a hungry man searching for food, he must eat the food for himself and by himself. Talking about the self nature will not help a Ch'an cultivator as talking about food will not benefit a hungry man.

To be continued