Chan Practice

Legend has it that the Chan School (Sanskrit: Dhyana, lit. ‘the Meditation School’)  came to be long ago on Mount Grdhrakūta, when Śakyamuni Buddha held up a flower before the assembly. Everyone was silent. Only Venerable Mahàkàsyapa broke into a broad smile.

The Buddha said, “I have the all–pervading true dharma eye, the incomparable mind of nirvana, the exquisite teaching of formless form, and the subtle dharma gate. Not dependent on words and speech, a special transmission outside the Sutras. This I have entrusted to Venerable Mahàkàsyapa.”

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Following Mahàkàsyapa came 27 Indian Matriarchs and Patriarchs who transmitted this special ‘non-transmission’ outside the scriptures, until the 28th, Bodhidharma made the journey from India to China and set the school up there. For 9 years he stared at a wall, and still he managed to make a fuss. After him came 5 more Chinese patriarchs, and the 6th, Huineng, founded the Suddenness Chan School which is the progenitor of the Chan we practice today. He managed to do so without knowing how to read and write – after all, it’s a school outside the scriptures.


So what is Chan Practice? Confusingly, Chan does not rely on specific methods. The principle is actually deceivingly simple. Your very own Mind is Buddha. Now since, as my teacher likes to say, Chan is the school of Sincere Seeing and Sincere Action, we must see this fact directly (not through intellectual reasoning), and act from this reality. Basically, we’re talking about taking off those pesky “ego-colored glasses” that we wear from the first moment our conditioning process starts. If you like mythological talk, we have worn those glasses since “beginningless time”.

chan.jpg Everything else is skillful means. Ways to realize and manifest this incredible Buddha Self. The trick is to turn the light of the mind (awareness) around on itself, and shine it on the Mind Ground. Illuminate inwardly, rather than grasp outwardly. In the Chan Practice tab on this site you can find various such skillful means, but first we must understand the prerequisites of Chan Practice. Here is a presentation of these by the Grand Master Empty Cloud, founder of our Chan Order of Hsu Yun:

“Many people begin Chan training by thinking, “Well, since all is Maya or Samsaric illusion, it doesn’t matter what I do or how I do it. The only thing that’s important is gaining Nirvana. So, since there’s no such thing as good or evil, I’ll do what I want.” It does matter what we do. Chan is a branch of the Buddhist religion and as Buddhists we must adhere to ethical precepts. Samsara or no Samsara, we obey the Precepts. And in addition to this, we also follow the strict rules of discipline that govern our training. Let’s start with the training rules:

While there are many different methods that may be followed, before beginning any of them, a practitioner must meet four basic requirements:He or she must:

  1. Understand the Law of Causality.
  2. Accept the rules of discipline.
  3. Maintain an unshakable faith in the existence of the Buddha Self.
  4. Be determined to succeed in whichever method he chooses.

I will explain each of these four prerequisites:

First, the Law of Causality simply states that evil produces evil and good produces good. A poison tree yields poison fruit while a healthy tree yields good.

Conceptually, this appears to be simple; but in actuality it is rather complex. Evil deeds are a vile investment. They guarantee a return in pain, bitterness, anxiety and remorse. There is no profit to be had from actions that spring from greed, lust, anger, pride, laziness, or jealousy. All such motivations merely serve the ego’s ambitions. Evil deeds can never promote spiritual fulfillment. They only guarantee spiritual penury.

On the other hand, good deeds, provided they are not done conditionally – as an investment that will yield some future reward, will bring to the doer of them peace and spiritual fulfillment.

An egoless good deed is very different from a contrived good deed. On the surface, the effect may seem the same; help or kindness that is needed is given. But the person who helps another with the hidden expectation of receiving some future benefit, usually does evil, not good. Let me illustrate this point:

In China there was once a Prince who loved birds. Whenever he found an injured bird, he would feed and nurse it back to health; and then, when the bird had regained its strength, he would set it free with much rejoicing.

Naturally, he grew quite famous for his talent as a loving healer of wounded birds. Whenever an injured bird was found anywhere in his kingdom, the bird would quickly be brought to him, and he would express his gratitude to the thoughtful person who brought it.

But then, in order to curry the Prince’s favor, people soon began to catch birds and to deliberately injure them so that they could take them to the palace.

So many birds were killed in the course of capture and maiming that his kingdom became a hell for birds.

When the Prince saw how much harm his goodness was causing, he decreed that no wounded bird should ever be helped.

When people saw that there was no profit to be gained from helping birds, they ceased harming them.

Sometimes it happens that our experiences are like this Prince’s. Sometimes, when we think we’re doing the most good, we learn to our chagrin that we’re actually causing the most harm.

Perform a good deed in silence and anonymity! Forget about rejoicing. A good deed should have a very short life, and once dead, should be quickly buried. Let it rest in peace. Don’t keep trying to resuscitate it. Too often, we try to turn a good deed into a ghost that haunts people, that keeps reminding them of our wonderful service – just in case they start to forget.

But what happens when we are the recipient of someone else’s kindness? Well, then, we ought to let that good deed gain immortality. Letting someone else’s good deeds live is much more difficult than letting our own good deeds die. Let me illustrate this, too.

There once was a grocer, a kind and decent man who valued all his customers. He cared for them and wanted them all to be healthy and well-fed. He kept his prices so low that he did not earn much money, not even enough to hire someone to help him in his little shop. He worked very hard in his honest poverty, but he was happy.

One day a customer came and told him a sad story. Her husband had been injured and would not be able to work for several months. She had no money to buy food for him and for their children. “Without food,” she wept, “we will all die.”

The grocer sympathized with her and agreed to extend credit to her. “Each week I’ll provide you with rice for seven days and vegetables for four days,” he said, “and that surely will be enough to sustain your family’s health; and then, when your husband returns to work, you can keep to the same menu while paying off your account. Before you know it, you’ll all be eating vegetables seven days a week.”

The woman was so grateful. Every week she received rice for seven days and vegetables for four.

But when her husband returned to work she had to decide whether to pay off her old debt while continuing to eat vegetables only four days a week or to patronize a new grocer and eat vegetables seven days a week. She chose the latter and justified her failure to pay her debt by telling people that her former grocer had sold her rotten vegetables.

How often, when we want something badly, do we promise that if we are given what we desire, we will dedicate our lives to demonstrate our gratitude? But then, once we receive what we so ardently sought, our pledge weakens and dies, almost automatically. We quickly bury it, without ceremony. This is not the Chan way.

And so, just as a farmer who sows soy beans does not expect to harvest melons, we must not expect, whenever we commit selfish or immoral or injurious acts, to harvest spiritual purity. Neither can we hope to hide from our misdeeds by removing ourselves from the location in which we committed them, or to assume that time will expunge the record of them. Never may we suppose that if we just ignore our misdeeds long enough people whom we have injured will conveniently die, taking to the grave with them our need to atone for the damage we have caused. It is our good deeds that we must bury… not our victims or broken promises.

We may not think that because there is no witness around to question us, we will not have to answer for our misdeeds. Many old Buddhist stories illustrate this principle. Let me tell you a few of my favorites:

During the generation that preceded Shakyamuni Buddha’s life on earth, many of his Shakya clansmen were brutally massacred by the wicked king, Virudhaka, the so-called “Crystal King”.

Why did this terrible event occur?

Well, it so happened that near Kapila, the Shakya city in which the Buddha was born, there was a large pond and, on the shore of that pond, there was a small village. Nobody remembers the name of the village.

One year a great drought occurred. The crops withered and the villagers couldn’t think of anything else to do but kill and eat the fish that lived in the pond. They caught every fish except one. This last fish was captured by a boy who played with the wretched creature by bouncing it on its head. That’s what he was doing when the villagers took it from him and killed it.

Then the rains came again and everywhere in the kingdom life returned to normal. People got married and had children. One of those children was Siddhartha, the Buddha, who was born in the city of Kapila, near that village and pond.

Siddhartha grew up and preached the Dharma, gaining many followers. Among these followers was the King of Shravasti, King Prasenajit. This King married a Shakya girl and the two of them produced a son: Prince Virudhaka, the “Crystal One”. The royal couple decided to raise the Prince in Kapila, the Buddha’s city.

At first, everything was fine. Prince Virudhaka was a healthy baby and before long he grew into a nice strong boy. But before he was even ready to start school, a momentous event occurred.

It happened that one day, during the Buddha’s absence from Kapila, the young prince climbed up onto the Buddha’s Honored Chair and began to play there. He meant no harm – he was just a child playing. But Oh! – when the Buddha’s clansmen saw the prince playing in this sacred place they became very angry and reprimanded the prince and dragged him down from the chair, humiliating and punishing him.

How can a child understand the foolishness of zealots? Adults can’t figure it out. It’s really quite mysterious. Their harsh treatment served only to embitter the prince and to cause him to hate all his Shakya clansmen. It was their harsh treatment that started him on his career of cruelty and vengeance.

Eventually, the prince, by killing his own father, it is said, was able to ascend the throne of Shravasti. Now, as King Virudhaka, the Crystal King, he was finally able to take revenge against the Shakya clan. Leading his own soldiers, he began to attack the city of Kapila.

When the Buddha’s clansmen came to tell him about the impending massacre, they found him suffering from a terrible headache. They begged him to intervene and rescue the people of Kapila from the Crystal King’s brutal attack, but the Buddha, groaning in pain, refused to help. “A fixed Karma cannot be changed,” he said.

The clansmen then turned to Maudgalyayana, one of the Buddha’s most powerful disciples, and begged for his assistance. He listened to their sad complaint, and moved to pity, decided to assist the besieged citizens of Kapila.

Using his supernatural abilities, Maudgalyayana extended his miraculous bowl to the threatened Shakya and allowed five hundred of them to climb into it. Then he raised the bowl high in the air, thinking that he had lifted them to safety. But when he again lowered the bowl, the five hundred men had turned into a pool of blood.

The dreadful sight so alarmed everyone that the Buddha decided to disclose the story of his ancestors, those villagers who had killed all the fish during the drought.

“This marauding army of soldiers that are now attacking Kapila had been those fish,” he explained. “The people of Kapila who are now being massacred were the people who killed those fish. The Crystal King, himself, was that last big fish. And who, do you think,” the Buddha asked, holding a cold cloth against his forehead, “was the boy who bounced that fish on its head?”

So, for killing the fish, the people suffered death. And for hurting that fish’s head, the Buddha was now plagued with an awful headache.

And what about Virudhaka, the Crystal King? Naturally, he was reborn in Hell.

And so, you see, there is no end to cause and effect. A cause produces an effect which itself becomes the cause of another effect. Action and reaction. Tribute and Retribution. This is the Law of Causality. Sooner or later our evil deeds catch up with us. The only way to prevent the effect is to prevent the cause. We must learn to be forgiving, to overlook injury and insult, and to never seek revenge or even harbor any grudges. We must never become zealots, self-righteous and proud in our vain notions of piety and duty, and above all, we must always be gentle, especially with children.

Let me tell you another cause and effect story. This one concerns Chan Master Bai Zhang who actually was able to liberate a wild fox-spirit. Very few people have been able to do that!

It seems that one evening, after a Chan meeting had ended and all his disciples had retired, Master Bai Zhang noticed that an elderly man was lingering outside the Meditation Hall.

Bai Zhang approached the man and asked, “Tell me, sir, who or what is it that you’re seeking?”

The elderly man replied, “No, not `sir’. I am not a human being at all. I am a wild fox who is merely inhabiting the body of a man.”

Bai Zhang was naturally very surprised and curious. “How did you get into this condition?” he asked.

The elderly fox-man explained, “Five hundred years ago, I was the head monk of this monastery. One day, a junior monk came and asked me, `When a man attains enlightenment is he still subject to the Law of Causality?’ and I boldly answered him, `No, he is exempt from the Law.’ My punishment for this false and arrogant answer was that my spirit was changed into the spirit of a wild fox and so I ran off, into the mountains. As a fox -man I could not die, and, for so long as my ignorance remains, I must continue to live in this wretched condition. For five hundred years I have been roaming the forests seeking the knowledge that will free me. Master, I beg you to be compassionate towards me and to enlighten me to the truth.”

Master Bei Zhang spoke gently to the fox-man. “Ask me the same question that the junior monk asked you, and I will give you the correct answer.”

The fox- man complied. “I wish to ask the master this: When a man attains enlightenment is he still subject to the Law of Causality?”

Bai Zhang answered, “Yes. He is never exempt from the Law. He may never close his eyes to the possibilities of cause and effect. He must remain aware of all his present and past actions.”

Suddenly the old fox-man was enlightened and free. He prostrated himself before the master and thanked him profusely. “At last,” he said, “I am liberated!” Then, as he started to leave, he turned and asked Bai Zhang, “Master, since I am a monk, would you kindly grant me the usual funeral rites for a monk? I live nearby, in a den on the mountain behind the monastery, and I will go there now to die.”

Bai Zhang agreed, and the next day he went to the mountain and located the den. But instead of finding an old monk there, Bai Zhang saw only a disturbance in the den’s earthen floor. He probed this disturbance with his stick and discovered a dead fox!

Well, a promise is a promise! Master Bai Zhang conducted the usual monk’s funeral rites over the fox’s body. Everyone thought Bai Zhang quite mad, especially when he led a solemn funeral procession… with a dead fox on the bier!

So you see, dear friends, even the attainment of Buddhahood does not exempt one from the Law of Causality. When even the Buddha can suffer a headache for having been unkind to a fish, how much more is our need to remain heedful of the principle that an injurious act, sooner or later, will bring us an injurious retribution. Be careful in what you say or do! Don’t risk becoming a fox spirit!

As to the second requirement, the strict observance of the rules of discipline, I will tell you sincerely that there can be no spiritual progress without morality and the fulfillment of religious duty.

Discipline is the foundation upon which enlightenment rests. Discipline regulates our behavior and makes it unchanging. Steadiness becomes steadfastness and it is this which produces wisdom.

The Surangama Sutra clearly teaches us that mere accomplishment in meditation will not erase our impurities. Even if we were able to demonstrate great proficiency in meditation, still, without adherence to discipline, we would easily fall into Mara’s evil realm of demons and heretics.

A man or woman who is diligent in observing moral discipline and religious duty is protected and encouraged by sky dragons and angels, just as he is avoided and feared by demons from the underworld and heretics from everywhere.

It once happened that in the state of Kashmir, a poisonous earth dragon lived in a cave near a monastery of five hundred Theravadin arhats. This dragon terrorized the region and made people’s lives miserable. Everyday the arhats would assemble, and together they would try to use the power of their collective meditation to drive away the dragon. But always they failed. The dragon simply would not leave.

Then one day a Mahayana Chan monk happened to stop at the monastery. The arhats complained about this terrible dragon and asked the monk to join them in meditation, to add the power of his meditation to theirs. “We must force this beast to leave!” they wailed. The Chan monk merely smiled at them and went directly to the poisonous dragon’s cave.

Standing in the cave’s entrance, the monk called to the dragon, “Wise and virtuous Sir, would you be kind enough to depart from your lair and find refuge in a more distant place?”

“Well,” said the dragon, “since you have so politely asked, I will accede to your request and depart forthwith.” The dragon, you see, had a fine sense of etiquette. So, away he went!

From their monastery, the arhats watched all this in absolute astonishment. Surely this monk possessed miraculous samadhi powers!

As soon as the monk returned, the arhats gathered around him and begged him to tell them about these wonderful powers.

“I did not use any special meditation or samadhi,” said the monk. “I simply kept the rules of discipline and these rules stipulate that I must observe the minor requirements of courtesy as carefully as I observe the major requirements of morality.”

So we can see that the collective power of five-hundred arhats’ meditation-samadhi are sometimes not the equal of one monk’s simple adherence to the rules of discipline.

And if you ask, “Why should strict attention to discipline be necessary if the mind has attained a non- judgmental state? Why should an honest and straightforward man even need to continue to practice Chan?” I would ask such a man, “Is your mind so secure that if the lovely Goddess of the Moon were to come down to you and embrace you with her naked body, would your heart remain undisturbed?” And you… If someone without having cause were to insult or to strike you, would you feel no anger and resentment? Can you be certain that you would always resist comparing yourself to others, or that you would always refrain from being judgmental? Can you be sure that you would always know right from wrong? Now, if you are absolutely certain that you would never yield to temptation, that you would never err at all, then, open your mouth and speak loud and clear! Otherwise, do not even whisper a lie.

As regards the third requirement of having a firm belief in one’s Buddha Self, please know that faith is the mother, the nourishing source of our determination to submit to training and to perform our religious duties.

If we seek liberation from the travails of this world, we must have a firm faith in the Buddha’s assurance that each living being on earth possesses Tathagata wisdom and, therefore, has the potential of attaining Buddhahood. What prevents us from realizing this wisdom and attaining this Buddhahood? The answer is that we simply do not have faith in his assurances. We prefer to remain in ignorance of this truth, to accept the false as genuine, and to dedicate our lives to satisfying all our foolish cravings.

Ignorance of the truth is a disease. Now, as the Buddha taught, the Dharma is like a hospital that has many doors. We can open any one of them and enter into a place of cure. But we must have faith in our physicians and in the efficacy of the treatment.

Whenever he wanted to illustrate the problems which doubt and lack of faith cause, the Buddha would relate the parable of the physician. He would ask, “Suppose you were wounded by a poisoned arrow and a friend brought a physician to help you. Would you say to your friend, `No! No! No! I’m not going to let this fellow touch me until I find out who shot me! I want to know the culprit’s name, address, and so forth. That’s important, isn’t it? And I want to know more about this arrow. Is the tip stone or iron, bone or horn? And what about the wooden shaft? Is it oak or elm or pine? What kind of sinew has been used to secure the tip to the shaft? Is it the sinew of an ox, a monkey, or a ruru deer? And what kind of feathers are in the shaft? Are they from a heron or a hawk? And what about the poison that’s been used? I want to know what kind it is. And who is this fellow, anyway? Are you sure he’s a qualified doctor? After all, I don’t want a quack to treat me. I think I have a right to know these things, don’t you? So, please answer my questions or I’ll not let the man touch me.’ Well,” said the Buddha, “before you could get your questions answered to your satisfaction, you would be dead.”

So, dear friends, when you find yourself suffering from the ills of the world, trust in The Great Physician. He has cured millions of others. Which believer has ever perished in his care? Which believer has failed to be restored to eternal life and happiness by following his regimen? None. All have benefited. And so will you if you have faith in his methods.

Faith is a kind of skill that you can develop. If, for example, you wish to make bean curd, you begin by boiling and grinding the soybeans and then you add a solution of gypsum powder or lemon juice to the boiled beans. You know that you can stand there, if you wish, and watch the curds form. You have faith in your method because it always works. Thus you gain the feeling of certainty. Of course, the first time that you made bean curd, assuming that you were completely unfamiliar with its production, you may have lacked faith in the method. You might have been filled with doubt that gypsum or lemon water would cause the boiled beans to form curds. But once you succeeded and saw with your own eyes that the recipe was correct and that the procedure worked, you accepted without reservation the prescribed method. Your faith in the method was established.

Therefore, we must all have faith that we each have a Buddha Nature and that we can encounter this Buddha Nature if we diligently follow a proper Dharma path.

If we are afraid, we should also remember Master Yong Jia’s words recorded in his Song of Enlightenment;

“In the Tathagata’s Real World neither egos, rules, nor hells exist. No samsaric evils may be found there. If I’m lying, you can pull my tongue out and stuff my mouth with sand, and leave it that way throughout eternity.”

No one ever pulled Master Yong Jia’s tongue out.

As regards the fourth prerequisite, being resolute in our determination to succeed in whichever method we have chosen, please let me warn you about the folly of jumping around from method to method. Think of the Dharma as a mountain you must climb. There are many paths which lead to the summit. Choose one and stay with it! It will lead you there! But you will never get to the top if you race around the mountain trying one path and then rejecting it in favor of another that looks easier. You will circle the mountain many times, but you will never climb it. Stay with your chosen method. Be absolutely faithful to it.

In Chan we always tell stories about purchased devils. One particular story is very appropriate here:

One day a fellow was strolling through the marketplace when he came to a stall that said, “For Sale: First Class Devils.” Of course, the man was intrigued. Wouldn’t you be? I would. “Let me see one of these devils,” he said to the merchant.

The devil was a strange little creature… rather like a monkey. “He’s really quite intelligent,” said the merchant. “And all you have to do is tell him each morning what you want him to accomplish that day, and he will do it.”

“Anything?” asked the man.

“Yes,” said the merchant, “Anything. All your household chores will be finished by the time you get home from work.”

Now the man happened to be a bachelor and so the devil sounded like a pretty good investment. “I’ll take it,” he said. And he paid the merchant.

“There’s just one little thing,” said the merchant – there’s always just one little thing, isn’t there? – “You must be faithful in telling him what to do each day. Never omit this! Give him his instructions every morning and all will be well. Remember to keep to this routine!”

The man agreed and took his devil home and every morning he told him to do the dishes and the laundry and to clean the house and prepare the dinner; and by the time he returned from work, everything was accomplished in the most wonderful manner.

But then the man’s birthday came and his friends at work decided to give him a party. He got very drunk and stayed in town overnight at a friend’s house and went directly to work the following morning. He never returned home to tell his devil what to do. And when he returned home that night he discovered that his devil had burned down his house and was dancing around the smoking ruins.

And isn’t this what always happens? When we take up a practice we vow with our blood that we will hold to it faithfully. But then the first time we set it down and neglect it, we bring disaster to it. It’s as though we never had a practice at all.

So, regardless of whether you choose the path of Mantra, or Guanyin’s method, or Breath Counting, or a Hua Tou, or repeating the Buddha’s name, stay with your method! If it doesn’t deliver you today, try again tomorrow. Tell yourself that you will be so determined that if you have to continue your practice in the next life, you will do so in order to succeed. Old Master Wei Shan used to say, “Stay with your chosen practice. Take as many reincarnations as you need to attain Buddhahood.”

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Grand Master Xuyun

I know it’s easy to become discouraged when we think we’re not making progress. We try and try but when enlightenment doesn’t come we want to give up the struggle. Perseverance is itself an accomplishment.

Be steadfast and patient. You’re not alone in your struggle. According to ancient wisdom, “We train for dreary eons – for enlightenment that occurs in a flashing instant.”


Here are some skillful means to choose from:

Pure Land Chan – The Path of Recitation

Hua T’ou Chan – The Path of Self Inquiry

Guan Yin Chan – The Path of Hearing Your True Nature

May your practice bring you true peace and contentment. Amituofo!

Rev. Mark Gilenson (ShenYun)