The Dharma door of investigating Chan requires some skill. It takes effort to investigate. One cannot expect to have a well after digging a single shovelful of dirt. One is not able to reach the Western Pure Land with one single step. Nor can one attain Buddhahood within one minute of cultivation. The methods and skills that I am presenting now for investigating Chan are quite elementary, as we should not introduce them in depth to beginners. You will gain some benefit if you can practice according to these methods. A good knowing advisor can only tell you how to apply effort in cultivation and meditation. You must cultivate and walk this road yourself. It is useless if you don't walk it yourself.
Section 1 — What are we investigating in Chan?
Penetrate the meditation topic and reveal the sign
Smash the black pail and reveal the original source
‘Chan’ is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyana. It means “stilling thought” in Chinese. To be still is to be serene. If your mind is busy and active, it is false thinking. The mind that does not move is the true mind, the proper mind. Calming your thoughts and reducing the activity and false thinking is called ‘stilling thought’ and ‘thought cultivation.’ Someone may say, “If thoughts are stilled until they are no more, then how can thought be cultivated?” Actually, you could say that this kind of thought seems to exist and yet doesn't. It does not necessarily exist or not exist. Then what is it? It refers to investigating Chan. And what are we investigating? We investigate thought cultivation.
1. Recognizing our original face
When we participate in the Buddha recitation session, everyday we recite, “Namo Amitabha Buddha, Namo Amitabha Buddha …” Ultimately who is reciting the Buddha's name? Someone might say, “It is me!” Then who is ‘me’? If this stinking skin bag of a body is really ‘me’, why does it decay when it dies? If it is truly ‘me’, then I should be my own master. However, I cannot be my own master. My body does not follow my instructions. When you are old and sick, there is nothing left when it dies. Someone may say, “If there is nothing left, then what is the purpose of reciting the Buddha's name? Aren't we cheating ourselves?” No. In fact, there must be something that controls this stinking skin bag. We should use the Chan topic, “Who is mindful of the Buddha?” to find out and thoroughly understand ‘who’ is the one that is controlling us. If you can return the light, illumine within and recognize your original face, then you will know, “Who was I before I was born? Who am I after I'm born? When I grow up I become attached to this ‘self’, but in the twinkling of an eye I get confused, and who am I then?” You should investigate these questions. Everyday we eat in confusion and wear clothes in confusion, and at death we enter the coffin of confusion. Such a life is worthless. We should pay special attention to this.
2. Attend the Buddha recitation session first and then investigate Chan
There are five main types of practices: Chan, Teachings, Vinaya, Esoteric, and Pure Land. The Chan Practice focuses on investigating the Chan topic, and the Vinaya Practice emphasizes observance of the precepts. The Teaching Practice is based on studying sutras and speaking the Dharma. The Esoteric Practice specializes in the recitation of mantras. And then there is the Pure Land Practice. Our Buddha recitation session is considered as Pure Land Practice, and later we shall investigate Chan. Why do first hold the Buddha recitation session and then investigate Chan? It is because we should find the answer to the topic, “Who is mindful of the Buddha?” Actually, there are many meditation topics. However, in recent years, most people just investigate this topic, “Who is mindful of the Buddha.” ‘Chan’ in Sanskrit is called ‘Dhyana’. The Chinese just use the word ‘Chan’, and after it was brought to Japan, the Japanese called it ‘Zen’. Due to the difference in pronunciation, most people today think that the Japanese ‘Zen’ is very special.
3. What does it mean to investigate the Chan topic?
When you investigate a Chan topic or “word head,” you should investigate the beginning of the phrase, not the tail end. The “word head” is what comes before language is spoken. There is no thought process involved, but merely investigation. What can investigation be compared to? It is like using a drill bit to drill a hole, or like excavating a well. Using a drill bit to make a well or to make a hole in a surface is analogous to investigating. However, drilling a well is tangible, whereas investigating is intangible. This comparison makes it easier for you to grasp the meaning. You must keep on drilling until you have broken through. Drilling through is known as “penetrating the fundamental investigation.”
4. There are many Chan topics that can be investigated
There are many Chan topics that can be investigated. The Japanese investigate nonexistence. They look into that idea. The Chinese investigate, “Who is mindful of the Buddha?” Some people investigate, “What was my original face before my parents gave birth to me?” or “What is nothingness like?” You can use whichever topic you prefer. There is a saying: “Sitting for a long time, one attains Chan. Staying in the same place long enough, one develops affinities. You must be patient and not be edgy or impatient, overcome by greed for quick results. We should dedicate our time and effort, progressing bit by bit each day in our cultivation. Do not expect to succeed instantly. You must continue to put in effort and endure pain in the legs. To end the cycle of birth and death is not a small matter. You must have genuine patience.
5. Something that does not cease to exist
The Japanese investigate ‘nonexistence’. I'll teach you to investigate ‘existence’. There is no fixed dharma. It is not easy to answer the topic, “Who is mindful of the Buddha?” There are people who investigate this topic but cannot find the answer for years. And those who investigate, “What was my original face before my parents gave birth to me?” are not always successful. The Japanese who investigate “nonexistence, nonexistence, nonexistence” are not always successful either. I will teach you now to investigate ‘existence’. This does not just mean repeating, “Existence! Existence! Existence!” Then what should you do? Everything in this world can cease to exist. Is there something that cannot cease? You should investigate this. When everything else is gone, what ultimately is left? Look for that which still exists. Everything can end or be annihilated. Then what cannot be annihilated? You will be enlightened when you find this one ‘thing’ that cannot be annihilated. You will also be enlightened if you can find that something that does not cease, or the original face before your parents gave birth to you, or who is mindful of the Buddha. But it must be a genuine attainment. Some people fake a breakthrough and simply talk intellectual Chan. That is useless. You cannot use what people have used before. It is not your own.
6. You must find it yourself
Some investigate the topic of ‘nonexistence,’ and I tell you to investigate ‘existence.’However, you want to investigate neither of them. What should you investigate then? There must be a solution. The texts of the externalists start with the syllable E or O. They say that all phenomena are either existent or nonexistent. E means ‘nonexistence’and O is ‘existence’. We do not investigate E or O. We shall investigate ‘neither nonexistence nor existence’. What is not nonexistence? What is not existence? It is neither emptiness nor form, neither nonexistence nor existence, neither defiled nor pure, neither going nor coming. Nonexistence refers to true emptiness. Existence refers to wonderful existence. True emptiness is not empty, and wonderful existence does not exist. When true emptiness is not empty, then there is wonderful existence; when wonderful existence does not exist, then there is true emptiness. True emptiness and wonderful existence are two and yet not two. True emptiness and wonderful existence have form. You must locate that which is formless. Anything with form is said to be unreal. That which can be expressed in words is all false. That is why the Sixth Patriarch says, “The secret lies within yourself; what has been spoken to you is not secret.” What I am telling you is not something secret. It is the teaching of the non-secret schools. You have to find the secret yourself.
To be continued