The Essentials of The Chan School


The Buddhist Yogi C. M. Chen

Todays talk is entitled the "essentials" of the Chan (Zen) school. All Chan students have read the biography of our patriarch Bodhidharma. Prior to his departure from China, he asked his disciples what they had comprehended.

Some said that they did not think there was any difference between words or non-words, that one should be neither for or against the Sutras. Bodhidharma replied, "Oh, Yes! You have gotten my skin." Next a Bhikshuni answered, "When Ananda saw the east Buddha world once, there was no need to see it again." Bodhidharma replied, "Oh! You have gotten my flesh." Another disciple said, "I do not grasp the four external elements nor do I hold the inner consciousness as real." Bodhidharma replied, "Oh, you have gotten my bone." The last disciple Hui Ko did not say anything. He just bowed down to his Guru in the graceful manner of a young lady. Bodhidharma said, "Oh! You have gotten my essence."

This essence is just like a lovely girl. Surely the girl is lovable, but exactly what is meant by her essential attributes. I will try to explain this matter to you. You have already read many Chan books, for example Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, but none of these books have clarified the Chan essentials. Therefore, I will try to talk a little different from these books, so do not be disturbed if I mention something new to you.

I. The First Essential

The first essential is a separate transmission beyond doctrine. There are many different schools in China and Japan. For example, the Vinaya school where Bhikshus, Bhikshunis and Bodhisattvas have their doctrine of Vinaya to follow. Further, there is the school based upon the three sastras or treatises, i.e., Madhyamika, Twelve Gates and One Hundred Verse Treatises. Also, there are the Tien Tai sect based upon the Lotus Sutra, the Hwa-Yen School based upon the Avatamsaka Sutra, and the Pure Land School based on the Amita Sutra. Most of the Hinayana schools are based on the seven texts of Abhidharma. Each school is based upon a particular doctrine. It is only our Chan school where no doctrine is allowed.

The true Chan transmission is beyond all doctrine, but there has been some confusion on this matter. For example, the third Chan Patriarch gave some stanzas called "Stanzas on Mind." Is this not doctrine? Of course, it is doctrine. Likewise our Sixth Patriarch gave the Altar Sutra. He was not a scholar and could not write himself but his disciples recorded his words. Of course, this also became doctrine. Later there developed five major Chan schools, each emphasizing its particular doctrine. Such as Kuan Yang Sect, a circle; Lin-Chi, the three wonderfulnesses; Yen-Man Sect, six forms. Each sect stressed its own doctrine. Surely to learn the philosophic doctrine of a particular sect is not going beyond doctrine. So what is the real meaning of beyond doctrine? I will let you know my own opinion.

Traditionally our Chan school has been divided into three types; Tathagata, Patriarch and Verbal Chan (the latter is mostly worthless talk). Patriarch Chan directly point out the Mind or Chan truth, but still relies on some doctrine to do so. Whereas Tathagata Chan relies even more heavily on doctrine. To know the essential of the Chan school on this point of view I have added a fourth category called Offspring Chan which is the only Chan type really beyond doctrine. I have published a booklet called "Offspring Chan", Chenian Booklet New No. 92, but the concept is very difficult to understand.

What does Offspring Chan mean? Is it truly beyond doctrine? Yes, these patriarchs never used any doctrine to transmit the Chan. But relied instead upon the abrupt force of spontaneous life situations. For example, a monk called Birds Nest, so named for he lived in a birds nest, had an attendant who served him for many years. This attendant wanted to take leave and Birds Nest asked him for what reason he was leaving. The attendant replied, "I have served you for many years, but still have attained no realization." The Birds Nest took a feather from the nest, placed it on his palm and blew it away. The attendant immediately comprehended.

This kind of transmission is really beyond doctrine. The unfolding truth was all the Master used to set off the Chan awareness in his disciple. You may now ask me, since the Offspring Chan cannot be found in any of the Chan books, how can we be sure that it lies within the Buddhist tradition? It is indeed there, perhaps not in bold print labeled "Offspring Chan" but it is there, if you can see it.

For example, when Bodhidharma came to China his Guru had foretold that "Though China is a very wide realm, yet under your Offsprings feet, it will be liberated, no matter how wide." Further the Sixth Patriarch foretold his disciple that "Under your system there is an offspring who is like a best horse, and he will save all sentient beings." This was a prophecy about the offspring named Ma-Tsu. Ma in Chinese means horse.

No one has bothered to extract all the references to Offspring Chan from the traditional texts and categorize them, so what again are the basic differences among the four types of Chan? Tathagata Chan was taught by Sakyamuni with the Tripitaka which is many thousand fold larger than the Christian Bible. I have brought a copy of it with me from India, consisting of seven trunk loads of books. Patriarch Chan points out the nature of mind to make you comprehend that there is no-mind. It uses doctrine to do so, but is more simplified, concentrated and direct than Tathagata Chan.

Tathagata Chan may be compared to a geography book, whereas Patriarch Chan would be a map. When you read a geography book you can discover that there are places like New York, Berkeley, etc. But if you have a map you can directly drive your car to go there. This is the difference. Offspring Chan neither uses a geography book, nor a map. The Guru just brings the discipleHERE! This is San Francisco, 300 Page Street. The disciple immediately exclaims, "Oh yes, so nice a building." Both the Guru and the disciple arrive there without walking.

Offspring Chan is the genuine Chan, Patriarch Chan uses some words, and Tathagata Chan is even more verbose. Offspring Chan is the only method that is fully beyond doctrine, and is nothing less than the direct empowerment of the Dharmakaya light experience. This completes the first essential called separate transmission beyond doctrine.

II. The Second Essential

The Second Essential of the Chan school is a distinguished comprehension beyond mind. While living in Berkeley I have heard many advertisements from the various Buddhist business groups, talking loudly and proudly about mind and psychology. Actually the final truth in Buddhism never falls within a one-sided view as Mind. But just what are these groups referring to? Many Kungans (koans) say Mind is the Buddha. Once a monk named Fa-Shen, having heard his Guru exclaim that mind is the Buddha, decided to follow this teaching and to practice it as a mountain hermit. After some time his Guru wanted to test him to make sure he understood the teaching, so he sent another monk to call on the hermit. He said, "What kind of comprehension have you got enabling you to become a hermit here?" The hermit replied, "Mind is the Buddha, I always remember this." The visitor replied, "Oh no! Your Guru said that I must bring you a new message. Nowadays he says that there is neither mind nor Buddha." "It does not matter to me. I know this matter quite well." The visiting monk returned and reported to his Guru. The Guru replied, "Really, the plum has matured," as Fa-Shen was living on the Plum Mountain.

In truth, there is neither mind nor no mind. This two-sided view must be discarded. When you comprehend the Truth you cannot say that this is only matter, or this is only mind. Matter and mind are false perceptions of one-sided views. This is why the monk did not care about his gurus new verbal instructions. He had directly experienced that which is beyond mind, and could see through the words of his Guru. Worldly things are created by attachment to matter. Spiritual things are created by attachment to mind. Therefore Chan encourages you to go beyond the mind. Dont hold mind or matter; both are one-sided views. Neither are the Chan. The comprehension does not attach itself to anything.

Once Ma-Tsu was meditating on a mountain as a hermit. His master paid him a visit and asked, "What are you doing here?" Ma-Tsu replied, "I am meditating here to get Buddhahood." Immediately, the master picked up a stone and began polishing it. Ma-Tsu then asked what he was doing to the stone. The master replied, "I am making a mirror." Ma-Tsu exclaimed, "No! It cannot be done in this way." "Likewise, you cannot become a Buddha by what you are doing," replied the master. "You must not hold the idea of becoming a Buddha. You must not strive for a result and if you sit here to become a Buddha you will never attain any realization." Ma-Tsu then comprehended.

Chou Chu was a very excellent student of Nan-Chain. He asked his Guru how to comprehend the Chan. The Guru replied, just keep the common mind. Chou Chu then comprehended. What does the common mind mean? Is this common mind equal to our disturbed mind? This is a very complex problem for students. Some students comprehend by following the concept of mind, others by rejecting it. So what is the real condition for comprehension? The word mind has become confounded and confused through the development of Buddhist doctrine in India. Some said mind, some said no mind, some said you must hold the mind mindfully. Others said you must leave the mind. But what is essential for going beyond the mind? As I have dared to say in my Booklet New No. 19 dealing with the Nyingmapa view of mind, even Padmasambhava himself sometimes left this matter unclarified. We should not use this word "mind." The physical mind is the heart, called citta in Sanskrit, which may also be used as psychical mind. Whereas the psychological mind of western psychology corresponds to what Buddhists call the sixth consciousness. The real mind mentioned in Chan Koans is what I call the "Philosophic Mind of Truth." The sages only taught about the psychological mind to free people from their extreme materialism. So it gradually became confused more and more with the Philosophic Mind of Truth. But neither the spiritual mind nor the physical heart is the Philosophic Mind of Truth.

In this Truth, there is no differentiation between physical or psychic, matter or mind. Distinguished comprehension lies beyond such discriminations. That is why Nan Chain said "common mind" which is the Truth. When you comprehend the Chan you know that the psychological mind is the philosophic mind, is the Truth. So in the Chan school, mind must be held as the Truth, but not mind as matter or spirit or psychology. If you hold the idea of mind you will say, "Oh, there is so much matter here, is this not all Chan? If this is not Chan, why did the Patriarch say that Chan is in the world?" Actually, the Dharmakaya light penetrates everywhere, matter and mind both. The so-called "mind" in Chan directly points out the Truth. Do not mistake the branches for the root. Chan is the philosophic Mind of Truth which is beyond mind, which is the Dharmakaya light.

A Chan proverb says, "just use the common mind which is identifying with matter." If one holds mind different from matter, how could one live everyday life which is so full of matter? So the second essential of Chan is that the Chan mind is actually beyond what is commonly referred to only as psychological mind. If you comprehend this, you will no longer be bothered by matter or mind.

III. The Third Essential

The third essential is a harmonized realization beyond energy. We have talked about mind so now we will talk about energy. Many teachings tell students to mediate by following their inhalation and exhalations and not to consider anything else. This is very good for beginners, but it is not the Chan. For according to my experience when the Chan really comes there is neither inhalation or exhalation, no movement at all. Even if you sat and meditated and followed your breathing for one thousand years, you could not get the Chan! Unless and until the breathing stops there is no Chan. And this is still just the first stage.

After the breathing has utterly stopped, there still remains some very subtle breathing, very deep down, which is called the breathing of the womb, as the movement of breath you see on the top of an infants head when it is sleeping. This must also be stopped. The Taoists like to indulge in curious mind and watch the movement of the inner energy, "Oh, this and this is happening." But no matter how skillful you are in plotting its movement or how strong it becomes, even if it causes your entire body to jump on the meditative seat, you can not get the Chan until the inner energy stops. The Chan will be met and accomplished at the last stage when you become like a bottle filled to the top with breath which suddenly shatters permitting the outward air and the inward air to be harmonized. There is no usual respiration at that time.

Breathing and inner energy practices are very good for beginners, but they are not to be confused with the Chan. When the Chan is comprehended it is just like the Dharmakaya, the whole philosophy. May I ask you, who can find the nose of the sky? Does the sky have a nose? It has no nose yet it is filled with air. When you really get the Chan you are like a broken bottle; there is no differentiation between inner and outer, subjective, objective, no exhale or inhale?everything has become fully harmonized. Some of the ancient Kungans prove my idea. Once there was a very well-known monk named Beating Ground Monk, who replied to all of the visitors by only beating the ground. Once a monk stole his stick and then asked Beating Ground Monk a question about Chan. He had nothing to beat with, so he just opened his mouth instead of beating. This was just due to the fact that he had no respiration. Once Hsuen Sha answered a monk who asked why it is so difficult to speak out, "It is because it occupies your entire mouth." Beyond energy is just like this!

IV. The Fourth Essential

The fourth essential point is an exclusive realization beyond meditation. Many people mistakenly think that Chan is a kind of meditation. But this is very wrong, for any kind of meditation is not Chan. Why? The Kungans prove this. When Lin Chi first came to the monastery he had already comprehended the Chan. So he did not follow the multitude in their meditative practice. He slept on the bed when the others got up to meditate. His Guru Huang Pei came and saw him sleeping, knocked three times, Lin Chi opened his eyes, saw his Guru and then closed his eyes again. Huang Pei agreed with another three times knocking. Next the Guru went to the upper part of the meditation hall and saw the most famous student sitting there very perfectly. But he read his mind and saw that he was only thinking, "My Guru has come to see me and may praise me as my meditative posture is so nice and straight!" But the Guru said, "You are not meditating, you are just passing your time in delusion. But that boy who is sleeping there has really got the Chan." So if Chan was a kind of meditation, such a Kungan would not happen. Once a monk asked a very accomplished Chan master about meditation. "HERE has no such useless things!" was the reply. To the question, "What is the most valuable thing?" another monk replied, "The most valuable thing cannot be reached by meditation."

Meditation is a kind of practice in the position of course. I divide all the practical teachings into three positions, named the Three "C". One is the Cause or seed, one is the Course which is the flower and one is the Consequence, which is the fruit. Chan itself is a fruit. Dont think of it as a seed or flower. If you think of it as a flower, you have to take care of it well with sunshine and water and then by and by you will get fruit. But Chan is already a fruit. It does not come from a seed which blossoms and then bears a fruit. If it happens in this way, it is not really Chan. So that is why Chan is exclusively a realization beyond meditation. You may meditate and sit for even one thousand years without realization. In China there was an Arhat who meditated in a tree for one thousand years. The emperor heard of him and had the tree cut down and brought with the monk intact to Peking. They awoke him with a bell. He spoke of people 1,000 years back. His meditation was very long but had not yet got Chan. This kind of meditation can perhaps make you some God-hood and get a good rebirth, but it will not give you the Chan. So we must know that the Chan is the realization, a kind of consequence. There is no need to plant a seed and wait for it to flower. To do so one would be ten million miles apart from the Chan.

This is why a proverb says, "without comprehension, you should not be a hermit. Without passing the second pass?you should not live on the mountain." I have added a third line. Without passing the third pass, you cannot get the whole fruit. Unless and until you have gotten the first pass, you should not even meditate; to do so would just waste your time. After comprehension, meditation is not a common causal one but a realization. So in the Chan school pilgrimage is emphasized. You should travel to every holy mountain to meet a Guru and when you meet the right one, you can really get comprehension. Then with that comprehension you should sit there; this is called dying for a long time. Outwardly this looks like meditation, but it is different from common meditation in the position of course. The disciple is abiding in the experience of the truth, which is realization in the position of consequence.

Today most Chan books and schools have mistaken meditation practices for Chan. This is wrong as you must first get "Wu", comprehension. Before this point, you should just pilgrimage to meet some sage who has already comprehended, and by his blessing you will comprehend. Then you "die for a long time" on such a "Wu" which seems like meditation. Then you go outside and do everything like a worldly man, passing through the five poisons (lust, anger, ignorance, pride and doubt). At this time you can genuinely say, as the patriarchs do, that Chan is within the world, there is no need to renounce. Before you get the functions of Chan it is better to drop out and search for a real Guru, keep away from worldly desires, the farther the better.

V. The Fifth Essential

There is no method to practice the Chan. So the fifth essential is a special accomplishment beyond practice. Neither by worship, nor repetition nor visualization, nor anything else can you get the Chan. However some type of practices are given anyway. There was a little practice of non-practice taught by Chinese Chan Gurus called the running shock method. Here one holds the Hua Tou as "Who Am l?" or any other one, very diligently day and night, as if you had become a mad man. If the doubt becomes great enough it will break, revealing the Chan. During the time you hold the Hua Tou any body posture will do.

The practice of running shock is followed by periodically running clockwise around the altar with your left shoulder higher than the right, tilted toward the center of the room. When the Guru or attendant makes a loud cracking noise, you must stop immediately. At this time, you may loose your consciousness and the Chan will appear. The inner energy flows down on the left and up on the right. The raised left shoulder causes the inner energy to move down. When energy moves down it is easy to stop a disturbed mind. This is a little real practice which has traditionally been given in Chan monasteries in China.

By meditation you cannot get the Chan. The truth is always therewho troubles you and keeps it from you if it is not your mind. Wherever your mind is, your breath is also there. You just ride on the horse of your mind, running wildly everywhere. This is the cause of transmigration. You must stop the riding of the horse by stopping your breath and your mind. When there is no breathing and no mind, the brightness of the Dharmakaya light appears. This is the Chan. Unless and until the breathing stops, the truth cannot appear. It is always there but you cannot find it. You cannot discover it. Who troubles you? Your mind and your breathing. That is why we should use this little practice rather than any other practice. Most practices are self-centered. The more you practice, the more you bind yourself and the more you transmigrate. That is why there is no common practice which should be emphasized by a Chanist.

As spiritual practice is not necessary, so also worldly business should not be practiced. Nowadays some of the Zen Centers do business in their monasteries in order to get money. They use the pretext of the Patriarch Pai Changs saying that one day without working, one day without taking. Actually this kind of work which he meant occupies only a little time in the evening after the monastic lessons are finished. It is work of just cleaning the mountain area, sweeping the wild roads, adjusting the position of flower pots, fertilizing the vegetables and gathering some wood faggots. This work is very light and is done in a short time. The Chinese ancient abbots never drove their monks or membership to work all day long. I know this kind of tendency happens in the U.S.A. As Im Chinese, I do know the rules of Chinese Chan monasteries before Maos control. I should point out the real fact of the Chan extra work held by Pai Chang. A Chanist should always encourage himself with the Chan proverb "Before I comprehend for myself, I mourn for my parents. After I comprehend I mourn for others?parents too." If so, there would be no more time for one to tangle himself in any worldly business.

Today I am just offering you a little of my experience. This is perhaps a little different from your books. But one day in a flash you will meet the Chan and then you will say "OKAY!"

(Please refer to the Appendix "A Short Course of Chan Practice")


Q: What is Offspring Chan again?

A: It is really beyond doctrine at all. Just realization to realization, I use my realization to touch your realization. This means that at the same time the Guru and disciple are in Truth. It is very important, this is the real Chan. Beyond Mahamudra which uses four Yogas and the Great Perfection, which uses initiation too. Everybody has a chance to try and get it.

Q: Could you say anything about your friends?

A: Friends?

Q: I mean do you have dharma friends?

A: Arent you my Dharma friend?

Q: Do you belong to some school or sect?

A: No, I have no school. If there is no I, so why a school?

Q: Could you say something about laymen and monks?

A: For the Chan it does not matter. There was a layman named Poing whose whole family comprehended, wife, son, daughter. He was a layman, but quite different from what we regard as layman. He had a wife, they slept together and talked about Chan everyday. He threw all his property into the river. Just taking the absolute minimum to preserve his livelihood, so his son and daughter never married, but they all comprehended.

It is easy to misapply the words of the patriarchs. There is a very common mistake which we must watch out for. For example, the sixth patriarch said that the Chan lies within the world, so there is no need to renounce, in order to get realization. GOOD! If you have really comprehended, this means that your Chan force must be able to penetrate all worldly dharmas. There should be no emotion, situation or anything which could move you out of the Chan. Therefore, wherever you go you meet the Chan, so what is there to renounce?

But if the Chan force is not strong enough to penetrate the world, one must keep himself a little distance from it, a little separation between himself and the world. If I am not prepared to fight with you then I should keep away, and make a strong gun. The, when the gun is ready, BOOM! The world becomes Chan. So if your gun is not powerful enough, you should indulge in the world only very moderately.

Nowadays the tendency is to enter the world prematurely, quite often the student has no realization at all. They only say that Chan is the world, sex is natural, drinking is natural, everything is natural. This is the Chan. But they have no realization. Their pain and suffering and discontentment with life are just as great as always.

We must continually reflect within ourselves. Suppose I am an author who has published many books. I become wealthy and famous. I am married but when my young wife goes outside, I become angry and upset. This is not the Chan, no matter how great other people tell you that you are. We must have pity on ourselves and continually reflect on the depth of our departure from suffering.

Suppose we say that sorrow is the Bodhi, samsara is nirvana, and sentient beings are the Buddha. This is very high philosophy, excellent talk. But talk is a long way from the cessation of suffering. Talk is good, but it takes much more to cut off the root of your unhappiness. The sixth patriarchs words that Chan is in the world so that you need not renounce the world are quite true for those who have comprehended. But did you really awake yet? Are you permeated with a contented and blissful feeling day and night in all situations? or are you just lost and bewildered in the world frittering away your precious time, but never eating of the fruit of life you dream of?

The layman must recognize that if his meditative force is not strong enough to penetrate worldly things, he had better for the time being keep a little distance between himself and the world. Prepare a gun with which to fight. Do not come armed with only talk. This is a kind of disease. Verbal Chan is not Chan. It cannot cut through your confusion of birth and death. You must examine yourself to see if you have really penetrated the pain. Your realization should be acknowledged by an accomplished Guru. Then you will not be prone to self deception and false realization.

A master said, "For one million miles there is no grass." Another replied, "When you go outside there is grass everywhere." Grass is symbolic of samsara. To say there is no grass means that one sees the Chan everywhere. But to say that there is grass everywhere is deeper. For not only does one see Chan everywhere, but he can also hold it under any test or challenge or condition. There is nothing or circumstance which could budge this matter from the Chan. He welcomes all challenges to further deepen his realization, avoiding nothing. He can pass through every kind of sorrow and samsara, without loosing the Chan, but this stage is very difficult to get even in the Tang Dynasty.

I have written the following poem:

They all tread upon the grass and fall,
They all are a worldly fool.
To treat as no grass at all?
Its hard for you to be so cool,
Seeing one grass on earth is easy
But to step on each grass is hard
Like a camel passing through a needle hole.

You have to see that everywhere there is no grass, because you see only the Chan. But this is not the final Chan. To see a blade of grass on the earth is easy, then you can treat all grass as one, this is the Dharmakaya idea. But to step on each individual grass blade is very difficult. How difficult? Like a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle.

For the first step with which one enters into the Chan, one sees everything is the Chanso there is no grass. But next you must leave this position, and break the whole Dharmakaya into its numberless small pieces. Now you experience that each individual piece is perfect, just like each drop of the ocean tastes like salt. To comprehend the totality of the Dharmakaya is easy. But to penetrate each individual piece is more difficult. So the first stage is to comprehend the totality of emptiness. The second is to let go of the Chan volition and the third stage is to use the Chan to function to penetrate each aspect of the Dharmakaya.

When we say there is no practice in Chan, this means one has learned to box without fists. Just like a bird which flies through the sky but leaves no tracks. When you get the Chan function, then you can enter the world and say I have no need to renounce, but not before. It is possible to find the truth in each blade of grass, i.e., whorehouses, gambling casinos, theaters, and bars, etc. But it is best to keep a little distance at first to make your comprehension very sharp. When you come back every blade of grass will bow down to you.

Now I will tell you a story about the grass. When Bodhidharma returned to Tibet from China, Milarepas disciples wanted him to go meet Bodhidharma. Milarepa said that he was too old and did not want to. But the disciples insisted, so the two met, and their disciples requested some competition. They decided to see who could stand on a single blade of grass.

When Milarepa stood on the grass blade, it bent a little, but not so with Bodhidharma. It remained perfectly straight. The disciple asked why this had happened. Bodhidharma replied it is only because I was born in India, so the earth god supports me much more than supports your Guru.

Our Chan comprehension must reach everywhere. Everything is "Wu" with the Chan. We must be able to stand up on each blade of grass. This means that we must be able to penetrate every sorrow and poison. At this time we can really come to the world. Otherwise you will just cheat yourself. But many sages in China have already cheated. So I always say that we must have pity on ourselves. If we cheat ourselves and do not live a full life, we deserve it. We do it to ourselves. If you enter the world prematurely without the Chan awareness? you have created your own restlessness and boredom. It is not the patriarchs who are wrong but you. The patriarch assumes that you enter the world within the awareness, not within your neurotic samsaric mind. Can you do this? If not, better to keep your distance and make your comprehension very strong, then you can fight back with anything.

I have written a book called A Lighthouse in an Ocean of Chan. I am very sad because many sincere and dedicated students have been cheated by many false books. They just fritter away their precious lifetime. They are under the delusion that they have comprehended the Chan. But actually they are just transmigrating in pain and suffering.

Q. You are called Yogi Chen?

A: They call me this, actually I dont know. Once I was asked by the secretary of the London Buddhist Society, "What should I entitle you?" I replied with a Poem:

"Calling me as ass, I would answer, yes.
Calling me a crow, I would not say no!"

They call me Yogi Chen, but actually who knows? In the Chan there is no such name. I do not want to introduce my personality to you, but rather the essentials of Chan.

[Home][Back to main list][Back to Chenian][Go to Dr. Lin's works]