A number of myths dominate the Western intellectual landscape regarding the history and practice of Chinese Buddhism. Many of these myths are even perpetuated within Japanese scholarship upon the subject. Eurocentric bias, cultural misidentification and blatant racism are often to blame. However, China is a vast country which continues to manifest its own culture (and destiny) regardless of the nonsense said about it in the surrounding countries. Within Chinese Buddhism, for instance, it is not uncommon to find examples of Buddhist nuns and monks ‘dying’ whilst a) sat uptight in the cross-legged meditation posture, and b) to continue hold this posture unassisted after the physical dying process has finished. Indeed, there are many famous examples of this kind in China today, with even ‘enlightened’ lay-people being able to perform this feat!
Moreover, even within modern China, for the devout Buddhist the ability to ‘leave the body’ in this manner is seen to be of great spiritual significance (similar to the shocking examples of the Vietnamese Buddhist monastics in the 1960s – who possessed the spiritual maturity and ability ‘not to move’ during the process of setting-fire to themselves in protest to US and Catholic interference in their country). Chinese Buddhism is often thought to have inherited this practice not from India (where some people believe it never existed), but rather from the very similar (if not identical) Daoist practice. This entire procedure is referred to as ‘Seated Transformation’ (坐化 - Zuo Hua) and involves the departing practitioner to retain the meditation posture with full and clear psychological awareness – whilst the breath is slowly brought to a standstill. This process functions through the conscious awareness integrating into the ‘space’ between each breath – so that the breath is finally left behind.
Situated near to the Indo-China Border is the Indian village of ‘Gue’, located in the Spiti region of the State of Himachal Pradesh in North India. As Indian collaborates with the US intrusion into Chinese territory – this area is used by the Indian government as a staging post for the 14th Dalai Lama and his ‘movement’. However, during 1975, an earthquake struck this area of Northern India and opened an old tomb that contained the mummified body of the Buddhist monk Sangha Tenzin – who was sat upright and very well preserved. In 2004, the local police excavated the tomb and removed the mummy. On discovery, it astonishing to find that the mummy was well preserved, with his skin intact and a crop of hair on his head. The mummy was eventually placed in a temple and is open to the public – despite the area being very remote and difficult to travel to.
This Buddhist monk is said to be around 500-years old and he has a name that is partly Sanskrit (Sangha) and partly Tibetan (Tenzin). He was placed in a ‘stupa’ after he died, and it is this structure that collapsed during the 1975 earthquake. His name was written on the stupa and he appears to have been protecting the area with his spiritual presence. Interestingly, Chinese Buddhist monks were performing this feat over a thousand years prior to this date (c. 1500 CE) with ‘Hui Neng’ (the Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an Buddhism) still sat upright in a temple in Southern China (d. 713 CE)! Even within the Theravada Buddhist tradition of Thailand there are stories of so-called ‘samadhi suicides’ whereby a Buddhist practitioner enters such a profound state of disembodied bliss that they never re-enter their physical bodies again! Hundreds of years later, these bodies are found still sat upright in remote corners of the isolated jungle, and when ‘touched’ usually collapse into piles of dust...
Although the example of ‘Sangha Tenzin’ has attracted all kinds of Western speculations about how he actually managed to ‘mummify’ himself – claiming he starved himself, or ate special food – contradictory processes all apparently carried-out whilst absurdly ‘running’ a lit candle over his body! - the reality is that within Chinese Buddhism (a tradition all but ‘ignored’ by the West) - the ability to leave the body through ‘Zuo Hua’ is carried-out only as a product of advanced spiritual attainment that requires no other ability than to have realised the goal of one’s chosen spiritual path! In other words, to ‘die’ whilst sat upright appears all the way through the Chinese Ch’an literature and is generated through the auspices of ‘spiritual’ will-power alone! There is no trickery involved and examples of naturally dying whilst sat upright is still seen within modern China!
When I access Chinese-language Daoist texts (from China) I notice that the dates for lives lived by the Daoist Masters are often extraordinary long! This is not always the case, but often enough to matter. Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) was not a Daoist - but as a Ch'an Buddhist Master - he lived into his 120th year. By accident, over the years I have found myself minutely researching his life to see if I can find any hint of misunderstanding, mis-recording, omission, or error - and I have found no such thing. In fact, when I extended the search to cross-reference key events of his life with a) well-known world events, and b) the biographies of others - at every single point everything overlaps and interconnects perfectly!
I cannot find an academic 'error' in the construction or the content of Master Xu Yun's biography! Xen Cue Lu (Xu Yun's biographer) - questioned Master Xu Yun a number of times about his birth-date, but each time Master Xu Yun repeated exactly the same (traditional) Chinese birthdate! As a number of Western commentators were pouring scorn on Xu Yun's assumed age (even when he was still alive) - Charles Luk respectfully approached Master Xu Yun to ask about his birthdate, and yet again the time period covering 1839-1840 was given (sometimes Xu Yun's dates are given as '1839-1959' which is correct due to the difference between the traditional Chinese calendar and the Western calendar).
Then, the internal evidence within his biography definitely supports this birthdate - particularly the contents of letters received from the two teenaged girls who briefly lived with him following their marriage. Both had eventually become Buddhist nuns and much later independently stated his birth year as '1840' - confirming that he left home when he was nineteen-years of age (in 1859) to ordain as a Buddhist monk! Again, both women confirmed that the marriage was not consummated.
"I think when a person is doing something worthwhile, the pain in the early stage should be a kind of foreshadowing of joy in the later stage." —— Venerable Teacher Chan Yi (禅一)
‘Still’ the Mind – and Transform the Way the World is Perceived.
Nowadays, there is a popular offline saying that you have to learn to talk to your body. The first stage of transforming our meditative state is the most difficult, so let yourself persevere more every day, such is the reality of a step by step accumulation, do you think this is a feasible solution?
Master Chan Yi:
In fact, in the early stages of meditation, there must be certain goals, and even a requirement to temper yourself. For example, in physical education classes – you do pull-ups – but when you are tired, the teacher will tell you, please insist on doing the last two in a much more conscious manner. That kind of painful training is what people are most reluctant to do. I think that when a person is doing something, the pain in the early stage should be a foreshadowing of joy in the later stage.
As we are used to a certain way of living before, now that we are entering a time of dramatic transformation, there is often a feeling of discomfort. This feeling of discomfort is not because the training is suitable, nor is it physical, but rather it exists because the ‘habits’ of the mind are not suitable. I often say that sitting in meditation is actually the simplest way of life. Simply cross your legs and sit there quietly - for 5-10 minutes – what is difficult about that? Within this practice we can develop insight into the patterns of our own mind (as if it is like our ‘shadow’), and when fully understood, we can strive to change this conditioning and transform our lives! Just as the numerous levels of patterning are dissolved, replaced and reconstructed – the mind begins to ‘think’ in a new way and the body relates to the environment so that there is no conflict (or damage done). Although we all enter this task from many different directions, we all begin to end-up in exactly the same location of improved inner health and harmonious outer relationships.
"It turns out that meditation does not rely on others – and you should not be attached to meditation. Indeed, meditation only works when you place the right amount of effort in its practice – nothing more and nothing less. Meditation is only a ‘method’, or a ‘tool’ which humans have developed to achieve certain types of inner and outer transformation. It is not a permanent feature in your lives because once it has achieved its intended function – it will be placed down just like any ‘tool’ you no longer have a use for. When you have located and penetrated the empty essence of your mind – then meditation will have achieved its purpose.” Master Chan Yi (禅一)
Three Layers of Meditation
I once met a senior who had learned meditation from (the enlightened lay-practitioner) Master Nan (Nan Huaijin - 南怀瑾) in Taihu University Hall. He told me that you should relax when you sit in meditation, and when you are all relaxed, let your thoughts naturally ‘flow’; don’t grab them or attempt to artificially control their direction. Simultaneously we remain broadly ‘aware’ of the flow of thoughts. I think this is a good start. After you have such an understanding, you immediately relax regarding the matter of meditation, a relaxation from the inside to the outside. This is how I slowly improved from 5 minutes to at least 45 minutes. So Master Chan Yi, this is my personal experience, and I also want to hear your opinions.
Master Chan Yi:
In fact, if you have the opportunity to come to our Shaolin Temple (on Songshan), you will find that we are holding a very popular and effective programme entitled the "Ch’an Self-Cultivation Camp" (禅修营 - Chan Xiu Ying) of Shaolin Temple. I have been involved in this and also interviewed many students. Prior to attending, life for them in modern China is so good they are safe and worry-free - but they would like somekind of spiritual outlet. Then, suddenly someone suggests the possibility that they should learn to meditate – and so they seek-out the monks at the Shaolin Temple. At the beginning, meditation seems like a fun game – particularly for people whose everyday lives are so materially comfortable – but then something interesting happens. Once the mind is ‘stilled’ and ‘strengthened’ through meditation, the superficial contentedness is ‘pierced’ and an entirely ‘new’ insight into reality manifests! Many people have never experienced the sheer ‘joy’ and ‘bliss’ of ‘sitting still’, or having ‘no purpose’ - and preferring ‘isolation’ over the noisiness of modern living. As the journey begins – and the student spirals upward in attainment – the student understands that meditation can be ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ in equal measure. To gain the ‘pleasure’ we must accept the ‘pain’ without expressing a preference for one over the other,
When we ordinary people learning to meditate, we can regard it as a part of our lives. Just like if you start from tomorrow, you can read a book for ten minutes at the desk before going to bed every night; or read two ancient poems, you don’t need to do too much, you just need to be able to sit down and read it by candlelight (or similar) every day. I don’t want to ask whether I can remember it, or whether I can read it for a longer time, just stick to it. In fact, meditation is also such a requirement: you only need to do it, and after doing it, you will find that you personality, behaviour and understanding has completely transformed beyond what it once was. If we persist, we might even begin to enter the sublime and truly divine states! All this takes is a regular dedication to a method on a daily basis. This is how any skill is mastered in this world.
When the muscles of the arm contract so that a heavy weight held in the hand can be ‘lifted’ - nothing in this process grants any knowledge as to how muscles work, or how movements are controlled by the spine or brain, etc. Similarly, when a gland secretes hormones – none of this process (in and of itself) grants any ‘special’ knowledge into the nature of glands or hormones – and yet, when the brain ‘secretes’ thought – it is assumed that this process of secreting ‘thought’ possesses the ability to ‘see into’ the inherent biological nature of a) the brain, and b) the mind, but is this a reasonable assumption? If the functions of other biological processes give no ‘special’ knowledge about the inner workings of a bodily organ – why should the secretion of ‘thought’ from the brain produce any substantially ‘different’ mode of knowledge?
Of course, the brain is not a ‘normal’ bodily organ despite the fact that it does regulate (together with the spine) virtually all other organs (and biological processes) in the body. The brain does this whilst generating the appearance of the ‘mind’ - from which ‘thoughts’ are believed to emerge. This ‘thought’ capacity has evolved to allow the brain to see its own processes (to a certain extent), whilst also being able to perceive processes in the external environment. With regards the perception of ‘inner’ processes, the capacity of the brain is severely limited, with no amount of contemplative thinking producing the exact size and shape of the brain doing the ‘thinking’. To acquire this knowledge, the physical organ of the brain (usually ‘dead’) would have to examined ‘outside’ of its usual skull-casing by another (living) human-being. In other words, a living brain examines the dead brain of a now ‘non-living’ human-being. A living human-being can observe their own arm lifting a weight in a manner which does not apply to the functioning of their own brain – and herein lies the fundamental difference.
The historical Buddha (in ancient India), for example, described the functioning of the ‘mind’ but never envisioned all this as an operation of the brain. I mention this as monastics within Early Buddhism often sat and meditated in graveyards and burning-ghats – and often contemplated the decaying of bodies left to ‘rot’ in the open by families too poor to afford a proper burning and disposal ceremony. Although the skull is often intact for those who have experienced natural deaths, there was probably cases of severely injured individuals where it was possible for the Buddhist monastics to ‘observe’ the brain. This could not have been very common, and certainly the Buddha does not speak of a ‘brain’ as such, despite linking the ‘sensation’ of the environment to specific sense-organs located within the body. This may be because the Buddha defined the ‘mind’ as a sensory organ which ‘senses’ thought – hence the ‘six senses’ found within Buddhist philosophy. Indian philosophy tends to view human consciousness as being various ‘frequencies’ of ethereal energy (perhaps ‘light’ energy). This gives the impression that the external world is constructed of light-energy that also ‘exists’ inside the body. This leads to the interplay of ‘void’ (consciousness empty of greed, hatred and delusion), and ‘form’, or all material stuff. As the Buddha advocated the psychological and physical ‘exiting’ of the world of sorrow – he had no need to develop a sophisticated anatomy and physiology – although he came very close to doing this by default of his ‘logical’ assessment of perception.
Unless we are exposed to the insides of the human-body in a scientific setting – no amount of inner gazing will produce an accurate picture of the ‘actual’ structures of the inner-body – or ‘how’ these structures fit-together and function in a healthy individual. All of this knowledge would slowly emerge in the various medical systems of the world – and very slowly at that. It is only in the last two-hundred years or so, that a reasonably accurate view of the human-body has been developed and utilised in the healing of humanity. Perhaps the Buddha got as far as any reasonably enlightened human-being could get, and in so doing did develop a ‘science’ of perception that was unusually perceptive for the time. Of course, our education systems allow us to ‘see’ much more in a short space of time, but no amount of this kind of study offers a short-cut to realising the ‘enlightenment’ advocated by the Buddha. Even though general education has moved-on, the Buddha’s enlightenment is still very difficult to realise. A well-balanced path would seem to involve a sound academic education coupled with a regular meditative practice. My view is that modern education is very important, but it doesn’t invalidate the path of the Buddha. If anything, I would suggest that modern education actually serves to ‘alienate’ humanity ever more from a perception of its pure spiritual essence. The Buddha’s enlightenment of compassion, loving kindness and wisdom – coupled with the accomplishments of modern science will produce an all-round human-being and effective Bodhisattva!
Adrian Chan-Wyles (釋大道 - Shi Da Dao) is permitted to retain his Buddhist Monastic Dharma-Name within Lay-society by decree of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, and the Chinese Buddhist Association (1992). A Buddhist monastic (and devout lay-practitioner) upholds the highest levels of Vinaya Discipline and Bodhisattva Vows. A Genuine Buddhist ‘Venerates’ the ‘Dao’ (道) as he or she penetrates the ‘Empty Mind-Ground' through meditative insight. A genuine Buddhist is humble, wise and peace-loving – and he or she selflessly serves all in existence in the past, present and the future, and residing within the Ten Directions – whilst retaining a vegetarian- vegan diet. Please be kind to animals!
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