Misconceptions about Ch'an in the West are premised upon a lack of genuine insight into Chinese culture and Chinese language sources. This approach 'assumes' things to be true because of a general lack of authentic knowledge. Once a misconception is developed in the West it is then 'shared' and 'spread' throughout the population. Like Halley's Comet - such an error of interpretation circumnavigates the Western thought community with monotonous regulatory This error of thought is nothing other than a habit of thought tat should be realised as such and thoroughly abandoned! The 'Hua Tou', for instance, is NOT a 'crucial' or 'critical' phrase as the deluded Zennists would have you believe. On the contrary, any and all 'hua tou' performs the function of 'returning' the six-senses (and their sensory-data) back to the 'empty mind ground' which is neither 'perception' nor 'non-perception'. It is that simple. This suggests that whatever the deluded Zennists can generate in their habitual surface mind - the 'hua tou' can return to its 'empty essence' - as no arbitrary thought formation is exempt from this process. Confusing the 'hua tou' (話頭) with a 'gongan' (公案) and vice versa is laughable and just the tip of the iceberg for the average Western Ch'an practitioner. All these pitfalls can be negated by applying the Hua Tou method properly and in all circumstances - this is part of how the Dhamma will protect you in ALL circumstances! Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) taught that the proper use of the 'Hua Tou' is a continuous and unending process of returning sense-data to its empty mind ground essence! In this sense, and to this extent, there can be no legitimate answer to the use of the Hua Tou (as each answer must also be 'returned'), and no satisfactory 'completion' for the contemplation of a 'gong-an'. The Western intellect, as sharp and concise as it is, is not designed to answer the Hua Tou and gong-an problem - as any answer emerging from and lying within the domain of duality itself merely serves as another contrived part of the problem that require deconstruction! In other words, it is clear that Westerners CANNOT 'out-think' or 'out-contrive' the Hua Tou and gpng-an methods as both are simultaneously comprised of pre-thought, current thought and post-thought components that exist superimposed one strata upon the other, so that each facet of inherent awareness immediately adjusts for the other, should it come under any undue (external) pressure from the adherent! The 'this worldly' approach exhibited by Zennists tends to turn the Hua Tou (and 'gong-an') into nothing more than an exotic fetish competing for 'clicks' and 'prevalence' on internet searches! It is the 'other world' that a practitioner of Chinese Ch'an should be aiming - if only to 'release' the ultimate non-substantiality of the 'inner' and the 'outer'!
Although certain modern trends within Asian Buddhism appears to suggest that a Buddhist monastic follows a path that is ‘superior’ to that of the dedicated ‘lay’ Buddhist practitioner – a close and careful reading of the Pali Suttas (and their Sanskrit counter-parts) reveals a very different picture. Yes – obviously a Buddhist monastic leads an infinitely more ‘virtuous’ life than a lay-person who does not follow the Dharma and lives just for sensory stimulation and superficial emotional gratification. This the argument that the ‘morality’ of the monastic is more worthwhile than the ‘hedonism’ of the lay-person. Of course, people are free to reject this analysis and conclusion. The two alternative views are that the ‘hedonist’ is ‘equal’ or at least ‘superior’ to the ‘Monastic’ - but these different interpretations tenable? There is something ‘instinctive’ about the ‘hedonist’ - as if they have not yet evolved the ‘wisdom’ to a) ‘manage’, and b) ‘elevate’ the data received from their sensory-organs to a higher plane of existence!
A ‘hedonist’ is someone who lives in the world of greed, hatred and delusion and see no problem with this natural arrangement. As this is the situation that the Buddha states generates all of humanity’s suffering – he rejects it out of hand. This is the world of the cess-pit of dirty sensationalism that the Buddhist monastic leaves behind and it is in this sense that the lifestyle of the Buddhist monastic is said to be morally and virtuously ‘superior’ to that of the uncontrolled, undisciplined, lazy and selfish ‘hedonist’. Although the human-beings within both categories make use of ‘sensory’ stimulus, the ‘hedonist’ is entrapped by what he or she ‘feels’ and cannot ‘breakout’ of the cycle of pointless repetition – whereas the ‘monastic’ takes exactly the same ‘sensory’ stimulus and uses this data to ‘uproot’ greed, hatred and delusion, and ‘break’ free of the cycle of pointless ‘sensory’ stimulation! This is why it is untenable to suggest that within this context, the ‘hedonist’ (as a lay-person) is the ‘equal’ or ‘superior’ to the Buddhist monastic! From this point of view, it is obvious that the ‘hedonist’ lives an ‘inferior’ lifestyle to that of the Buddhist monastic.
Things are not so clear-cut when devout individuals follow the Dharma with determination and yet still live within the world of everyday concerns. This type of lay-person is very different to the ‘hedonist’ as they apply to their lives the very same Dharma that the Buddhist monastics make use of, with many such lay-people even choosing to voluntarily abide by the Vinaya Discipline to the best of their ability within the circumstances they live within. When Buddhist monastics give Dharma-Talks in China to audiences of robe-clad lay-people, he or she usually takes a humble position as within their ‘cloistered’ life, it far easier to apply the Dharma and to discipline their minds and bodies with the minimum of distractions or cares. For the devout lay-person, however, their life is full of distractions and cares that have nothing to do with the Dharma and often get in the way of its practice! Despite this, these dedicated lay-people persevere with the disciplining of their minds and bodies and apply the Ch’an method within all circumstance, good, bad and indifferent.
Despite these hindrances inherent within everyday life, both male and female lay-practitioners of the Dharma realise full and complete enlightenment! This is even mentioned in the Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist texts, and was a well-known occurrence during the Buddha’s lifetime. Although the worldly use of the senses creates obscuring barriers between the surface mind and the empty mind ground – the lay-person applies the gong-an, hua tou or chanting practice too such a high degree of commitment that the surface mind of obstruction (klesa) is smashed to pieces forever! This suggests that the sheer practice of the committed lay-person became so full of inner potential that it drilled-through the klesic obscuration and achieved full and total comprehension of the empty mind ground! In the Pali Suttas the Buddha clearly states that when the enlightened mind is realised – there is no difference between a lay-person and a monastic.
Although both may occupy very different stations in life that demand certain rules of interaction and polite communication, the essences of each individual’s understanding remain exactly the same! Both the ‘monastic’ and the ‘lay’ person are looking at and integrating with exactly the same empty mind ground so that the only differences in their lives is the social status each occupies. Vimalakirti was a very wealthy Indian who possessed a number of wives and countless children, and yet he ‘saw through’ the obscuring veil if the world and perceived the empty mind ground. Hui Neng – the Sixth Patriotic of Ch’an - was a lay-person when he inherited the Dharma (only ordaining at a later date). The Chinese Ch’an Records record a number of examples of how ordinary men, women and even children achieved full and total enlightenment! As Buddhist monasticism is premised upon humility – many such practitioners believe that the ‘lay’ path to enlightenment is by far the much harder path to take (as everything about it serves to turn away from, and obscure the empty mind ground). This is why many Chinese Buddhist monastics today, habitually place themselves ‘below’ the status of the laity. It may be that such humility contains the inherent power to encourage the ‘hedonist’ to change their lives for the better and follow the Dharma, whilst supporting, empower and ‘lifting-up’ those lay people who are already making good progress in their self-cultivation!
Polarity is a funny business. Life and death – health and illness, etc – all this often occupies the human mind (and body) above and beyond every other subject. Of course, we must also feed and house the body, but if one of these is missing, at the very least we must provide nourishment for the human-body. Many in the West fear homelessness as the weather in this part of the world is often cold, wet and difficult to endure for at least six months of the year! When I lived in Sri Lanka, poverty and good weather went hand-in-hand so that holy men and women – that is the truly committed to the realm beyond the senses – walked around in the flimsiest of attire – except the Jains who give-up even this modest association with the world! A naked body is not as much of a problem as is a naked ego...
Of course, I have heard of a Western Zen monk living (voluntarily) homeless on the streets of New York, although this was at least fifteen years ago, and perhaps more. It is not just the weather that distinguishes East from West – but history and culture as well. There is a particular ‘coldness’ to the ‘individuality’ of the West which is lacking in the ‘collective’ cultures of the East. Even so, regardless of how humanity sets about organising the external aspect of its existence, there is always the thorny issue of how the ‘inner’ life is to be approached, reconciled and processed, etc.
Is it possible to ‘give-up’ all desire for physical life – and yet continue to still ‘exist’ on this plane of reality? Can ‘we’ be both ‘here’ and ‘not-here’ simultaneously and in a manner that is not paradoxical or contradictory in any disconcerting or disruptive sense? Can there be ‘peace of mind’ and ‘health of body’ in a state that is ‘beyond all states’? I suspect that this all comes down to the balancing of what the Buddha defines as ‘perception’ and ‘non-perception’. A mind (and body) that is beyond the realms of the world still needs to be fed at least the minimum of food – hence the Buddhist monastic and the agency of ‘begging’ and/or growing their own food (with an emphasis upon vegetarianism). It is in this rarefied ‘space’ that all sophistry for the world is ‘not yet arisen’ and all is peace and tranquillity despite the nature of the external world (which ultimately must also include the ‘health’ of the physical body).
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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