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'!
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).
Even my Daoist friends in China tend to view immortality as a long life lived well (usually 100 hundred-years) - rather than taking the concept literally. Keeping mentally and physically fit are subjects we all must a) study and b) participate in - as we are all living human-beings progressing through our lives. We know from the science of genetics that our life-spans can be determined even before birth (with a number of people dying at aged 27-years of ‘natural causes’, etc), but we also know that our choice of life-style can, in many cases, move the genetic bench-mark to a certain extent. A healthy life-style tends to delay death – whilst an unhealthy existence tends to bring death nearer. This was known thousands of years ago and is the reason traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) advocates ‘prevention’ of illness (and accident) – rather than the ‘cure’ of a specific ailment. Although TCM can (and often does) ‘cure’ symptoms today – this was not the original function of its ancient underlying Chinese wisdom.
Many ancient cultures, such as the Sumerian, the Greek, the Indian, the Egyptian, the Jewish and the Celtic-Druids, etc, developed various medical systems. Chinese medicine developed into a broad and all-encompassing subject premised upon the well-known concepts of the eight trigrams (gua), yin-yang (shade-sunlight), the Five Phases (Wuxing), qi (vital force) flow and psychological and physical exercise! Even within modern China today, TCM shares a common scientific foundation with Chinese engineering and construction – with Chinese doctors often qualified also in engineering (before specialising within the field of guarding the well-being of the human-body rather than designing and constructing material objects). This demonstrates that there is a common cultural foundation throughout Chinese cultural thought – although modern (Western) medicine is also studied and applied throughout China. Some people (and illnesses) respond more effectively to TCM – whilst other ailments and injuries are more easily cured with modern medicine. Sometimes, a very clever and precise combination of both types is used. This is the case with regards to Covid19 – the Chinese State is responding with a strict modern medicine approach to contain and eradicate the illness at source – whilst individual patients, although also treated with modern medicine sometimes choose TCM – or TCM is recommend by a modern doctor, etc.
As individuals, we must take action to guard our health in mind and body the best we can within the society we live. Within the past, Ch’an Masters living in the remote areas of China often sustained themselves through will-power alone as they had no choice. A poor diet coupled with exposure to the elements probably made them very physically weak whilst they made their mind-attention very strong. Many even went as far as eating tree-bark and drinking rain-water for long periods. Their physical poverty was irrelevant to the spiritual training they were undergoing. Very few people in Old China had access to adequate clothing, housing, food or medical treatment, etc, and virtually no one expected to have these things outside of the nobility (about 10% of population). How is this level of ‘non-attachment’ to be achieved? In many ways, the Chinese Ch’an tradition emerged out of the harsh or stark culture of feudal times and has survived into the modern times. Although things are very different within China today, the examples of Vimalakirti, Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng, Master Han Shan and Master Xu Yun, etc, demonstrate that this attitude of ‘non-attachment’ is applied equally in all situations – regardless of whether there is deficient or plentiful material supplies in the environment.
A person may inhabit an ill or injured body – whilst possessing a ‘pure’ and ‘shining’ mind. Many people whose bodies manifest various types of disabilities often realise the empty mind ground and no longer consider themselves limited to the condition of their bodies (or situation of their life circumstances). There is a book published in 1965 in the West entitled ‘Three Pillars of Zen’ by an American Zen teacher named ‘Roshi Philip Kapleau’. Philip Kapleau was a good friend of Charles Luk (1898-1978) and was always respectful toward his translation work and the memory of Great Master Xu Yun (1840-1959). He included in his book the extraordinary story of Iwasaki Yaeko (岩崎八重子) - referred to throughout the book as ‘Yaeko Iwasaki’. This 25-year-old young woman in Japan trained in Zen meditation under Harada Roshi (原田 大雲祖岳) in 1935 – much of the interaction taking place via the written word (in the form of posted letters). Although she began her Zen training carrying-out the usual 25-minute stints of seated meditation in the traditional Zazen position, (followed by 5-minute rest periods practicing ‘walking meditation’ before starting again) in the seated Zazen. However, she soon developed a long-term illness (tuberculosis) that prevented her from going-out into the world and participating in seated Zazen. She was so weak she could not even perform Zazen in the privacy of her home – at least not in the usual physical manner.
This new situation did not deter her or her Zen teacher. Yaeko Iwasaki read Great Master Dogen’s ‘Shobogenzo’ at least seventeen times whilst lying in bed over a five-year period. This was her immersion into the essence of the Soto (Caodong) School of Zen – whilst Harada Roshi guided her through the Koan-practice associated with the Rinzai (Linji) School of Zen! (Harada Roshi was actually trained in both the ‘Soto’ and ‘Rinzai’ traditions). Yaeko Iwasaki was given the Koan ‘Mu’ to contemplate and penetrate day and night – awake or asleep whilst lying in her sick-bed. No matter what moment of the day it was, or how she felt at a particular moment – she was tasked with manifesting ‘Mu’ clearly (like a ‘hua tou’) - until its essence (the empty mind ground) manifested and became ‘clear’! As her father had died suddenly, and given that her health was deteriorating rapidly, a very real and profound ‘fear’ of death acted as the key motivation for her continuous Zen-practice regardless of circumstance. A sense of desperate urgency was very much present as she did not know how long she had to live – only that her life could end at any moment without warning!
This dramatic situation is exactly like the Zen story that states that a Zen-practitioner must desire enlightenment as strongly (and irrationally) as a drowning man demands air! When human-beings are placed in dangerous or highly unpredictable situations – quite often a ‘heightened’ sense of awareness is achieved that interprets the world from an entirely ‘new’ perspective. Yaeko Iwasaki had an alert and bright mind that was inhabiting a body that was a) not functioning properly and b) as a consequence, was close to shutting-down entirely. The biological situation was precarious to say the least. Although still a young woman, Yaeko Iwasaki was going to die without living a full-life and experiencing so many things common to many people. This was a very sad situation – but ‘sadness’ had to be replaced with ‘clarity of thought’ and ‘self-pity’ had to be transformed into a ‘positive’ and highly ‘focused’ Zen-mind that would stop for nothing regardless of existential situation! As her life-force (qi) began to ebb-away – Yaeko Iwasaki achieved a total and full enlightenment! Her story should serve as an inspiration for us all!
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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