Using a ‘mala’ - or a set of ‘Buddha Beads’ - can be done in a variety of ways. As each bead is purposely ‘moved’ through the guiding finger and thumb, quite often a mantra is recited, or perhaps a short sentence from a Sutra, etc. Other times, the practitioner may sit quietly and ‘look within’ as the beads proceed. A Buddhist mala is usually made of 108, 54 or 27 beads – which while threaded upon a cord may well be divided at regular points by a smaller ‘dividing-bead’. Sometimes, no dividing-beans are used. The cords are tied so that the mala is held in a permanent ‘round’ shape. The beads can be crafted from wood, glass, jade or various other precious stones. Quite often, mala of differing quality and bead quantity are associated with the various holy places of China and produced locally for famous temples to sell to pilgrims, or for people to present as ‘gifts.
Some of the smaller mala are designed to be easily worn around the left wrist, whilst the larger type is worn around the neck. Generally speaking, the latter is worn only by ordained Buddhist monks and nuns. The way I prefer to use the mala is through the perfection of pure ‘touch’. This uses the sense of ‘touch’ gained between the thumb and finger which forms a thought in the mind of ‘bead’. As ‘bead’ is a word – this word can be ‘returned’ to its non-perception essence (i.e., the empty mind ground). This is how the sense of touch is used as a hua tou using beads. At the advanced level – the word ‘bead’ does not need to be formed – and the bare sensation of ‘touching’ the bead serves as the meditative object ‘returned’ to its source.
When I was a Ch’an monk I was provided with a large (and heavy mala) constructed from beads made of jade. This was a sign of reassurance for the laity (rather like a ‘cross’ within Christianity). As I was permitted to retain my ordained name of ‘Shi Da Dao’ when I was sent out into the world to spread compassionate action – I was also permitted to keep my mala and my ‘black’ robe – which is indicative of the Cao Dong lineage. This large mala spends most of its time hanging on the family shrine nowadays. Although the sense of ‘hearing’ is considered the most efficient and promising sense for humans to return to the empty mind ground, any of the other five Buddhist senses can be used if a practitioner has developed suitable concentrative strength.
As the monks and nuns often lived in isolated areas – or went on perilous journeys that were once plagued by banditry and all kinds of occasional lawlessness – different systems of self-defence were created that did not violate the Vinaya Discipline. Objects such as the walking staff, begging bowl and even mala were often modified for combat usage. The ‘fighting-mala’ that I was shown in China was made of metal beads threaded onto thin metal wire. It also had a ‘weighted’ end similar to a ‘throwing-dart’. This type of self-defence was premised upon a mind stripped clear of greed, hatred and delusion – and physical movements designed to ‘nullify’ (but not ‘perpetuate’) the violence being unjustly inflicted upon the monastics. There is quite literally ‘nothing happening’ in a constructive manner – with all sensation relating to the six senses spontaneously being ‘returned’ to the empty mind ground.
The text that requires study is that of the Surangama Sutra as translated by Charles Luk. This should not be confused with the ‘Surangama-Samadhi Sutra’ as translated into English by Etienne Lamotte. The latter is useful but different - as it describes the Early Mahayana and the conversion to following the Dharma by Mara – in the form of a conversion between the Buddha and the Bodhisattva Drdhammati. In both Sutras is the found in-depth discussion of the state of ‘Samadhi’ - or ‘one-pointed’ concentration of the mind achieved through dedicated and focused meditation practice. As this Buddhist practice is considered ‘world-altering’ and ‘heroic’ - both Sutras take the name ‘Surangama’ to indicate the ‘Heroic’ nature of such practitioners. The ‘Concentration’ of the mind facilities the attainment of ALL further states of understanding and enlightenment within the Buddhist tradition regardless of school. Whatever a distinctive Buddhist School might advocate – it cannot be achieved without first mastering ‘Samadhi’. Like the Vimalakirtia Nirdesa Sutra, the Surangama Samadhi Sutra was first translated into the Chinese language by Kumarajiva – the famous Buddhist scholar.
Charles Luk’s translation of the ‘Surangama Sutra’ also includes a shortened commentary by Ch’an Master Han Shan Deqing 1546–1623). This Sutra is much more indicative of the ‘directness’ of the Ch’an Method, and defines ‘Samadhi’ as containing ‘three’ distinct attributes of attainment 1) self-evidencing, 2) perception, and 3) form. Correct training penetrates the alaya – or ‘eighth consciousness’ - and smashes forever the false notion of a permanent ‘self’ or ‘soul’ as favoured by many other religions. The Buddha discusses with various Bodhisattvas the merits of using one or other of the ‘six senses’ advocated within Buddhist thought as a means to ‘breakthrough’ the chaotic surface mind (and thus ‘stilling’ it), as well as transcending the dangerously seductive ‘empty-mind’ (which can often produce a very strong ‘attachment’ and ‘world-denying’ tendency). For ‘form’ and ‘void’ to be understood as ‘identical’ whilst simultaneously representing radically different states of being – both concepts must be fully realised, penetrated and transcended without error, doubt or hesitation.
Whilst the ‘hearing’ facility is presented as the most efficient method of entering the stream of consciousness in a pro-active manner – it is also true that he other ‘five’ senses can also be used with the caveat as each is not as efficient or as easy as the ear. These are the senses of ‘thinking’, seeing’ ‘smelling’, ‘tasting’ and ‘touching’, etc. Together with the hearing capacity – ALL sensory data (regardless of its ‘type’) can be equally ‘turned’ and directed back inward toward its non-perceptual origination (from within the empty mind ground). My experience is that relative enlightenment is the realisation of a ‘still’ mind by successfully return just one bodily-sense back to its empty non-perceptual essence. Although this is considered complete enlightenment in the Hinayana School – this is not so in the Mahayana School.
As the Lankavatara Sutra states – the six senses are like six knots in a length of string – untie one knot and they all untie simultaneously! This means that when the ‘hearing’ is successfully returned – through a period of further disciplined Ch’an training – the other five senses are then realised as returning to exactly the same empty mind ground and the perceptual awareness of the mind is experienced as ‘expanding’ and embracing all things. This is the stage of ‘full’ enlightenment as taught by the Ch’an School and which was confirmed by the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng in his ‘Altar Sutra’, etc. Certainly, when in a natural state of enlightened repose, the Ch’an practitioner inhabit all six senses simultaneously being a) continuously ‘returned’ to the empty essence, whilst b) continuously radiating wisdom, loving kindness and compassion from the empty mind ground and into the world through the permanently ‘purified’ six senses. This is the Cao Dong Lineage as conveyed by Master Xu Yun (1840-1959)
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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