Chan Buddhism

This is the Buddhism of China and the true ancestor of Zen whose development we mostly associate with Japan. Also the Buddhism of Korea and Vietnam (see Thich Nhat Hanh) derives from Chan–we can also call it Chinese Zen. The different varieties of Buddhism is a phenomenon of interest in itself, but I would like to focus just a bit on Chan because of its peculiar beauty and power and simplicity. It holds some of the most remarkable figures in Buddhist history (like Hui-neng), and it enchanted someone like Thomas Merton for whom it contained the essence of Zen (but also he recognized that practically speaking he had to learn Zen from the Japanese and then he discovered Tibetan Buddhism which brought a very methodical, practical approach to very deep meditation—but after his encounter with the Tibetans he was going to go to Japan and meet some Zen masters there and then onto Iran and meet a number of Sufis there, so who knows how he would have finally landed!)

Guo Jun is an extremely young Chan Master and abbot of a monastery in Singapore, only 41 years old. He came from a humble, poor background but got a college degree in a scientific discipline. He began his Chan studies and practice at age 14 but did not become a monk until about the age of 24. He trained both in Singapore and in Korea, where the Zen monasteries are very austere and demanding beyond anything anywhere else I ever heard of. He himself is a very gentle, humane man in whose person one can see the true spirit and wisdom of Chan. Let us now listen to his own words:

“The breath is always there. It never leaves us. We abandon our breath, run away from our breath, ignore the breath. The breath is always there, waiting for us. The breath is always there, precisely as the present moment is always here. We are born with the most precious thing there is, which money cannot buy. We are born with the breath. From the moment we are born until the moment we die, our most loyal friend is the breath. It stays with us. And yet, so often we neglect this friend and take it for granted. We ignore the breath. We betray the breath. But when we want to go back to the breath, the breath
welcomes us. The breath is our treasure. It gives us courage and support. The breath is our refuge. Keep returning and returning and returning to the breath. Perhaps this sounds easy. It is not. Nothing
that is precious and to be cherished is easy…. It is not easy to always come back to the breath, to come back to the present moment. Still, in
reality it is quite simple. We are born with the breath; we are born with Buddha nature. At the end of the day, it is our choice. We all have a
choice to follow the path back to the breath and the present moment.”

Comment: Do not be fooled or lulled by the simplicity of these words or the seeming “obviousness” of this teaching. It flows from a profound
realization and is presented with a spiritual ingenuity of real depth masked by “everyday” simplicity.

Guo Jun again: “The purpose of Chan practice is practice. It is not this goal or that goal. There is no goal in Chan. There isn’t something in Chan that we want to attain. Rather, through engaging with Chan or living Chan, you discover yourself, you become more aware of yourself. But at the end of the practice, you get nothing. There is nothing for you to get. Don’t think: I want awakening. I want enlightenment. That is my
goal. That is what I am striving for. No! There is no goal. The Heart Sutra says, ‘No goal, no achievement, no attainment.’”

And again: “When our lives are not in harmony we experience stress, pressure, and tension. There is an imbalance. As a result, there is conflict. This is “duhkha,” a Sanskrit word that is central to Buddhism and usually translated as “suffering.” In fact, duhkha has many different levels of meaning. In a basic sense, it simply means “out of place.” The Buddha says duhkha is like a wheel out of joint: it can’t rotate on its axle. The wheel whines and complains as it turns. So, similarly, in our life when we feel out of place, we experience dissonance, whether in body, mind, body and mind, the self and others, or the self and the world. Duhkha can also mean “entrapped.” Sometimes we are trapped in our emotions, or in what feels like an impossible situation or relationship. We are overwhelmed and feel helpless and overpowered. All these conditions cause us to feel out of tune. This could also be thought of as a kind of disconnection or alienation. We’re out of position. There is friction. Our lives are not moving well. It is this position of entanglement that Chan addresses.”

Guo Jun describes the hair-raising discipline of a monastic retreat in a Korean Zen monastery: “The daily schedule was brutal. We woke at 3 am and finished at 11pm. We had only fifteen minutes each for breakfast, lunch , and dinner…. For 90 days we did not take a shower. We had a basin of water that was filled from a bamboo pipe that ran down from the mountain and used a towel to scrub ourselves clean. No break time, no time to relax, no nap after lunch. Sleeping after 11. Waking at 3. Most of us did not even have a room. We sat in the meditation hall on a folded-up cushion, which was also our bed. Each sitting was at least an hour, and we had to sit in full lotus. No movement was tolerated. If the monitors, who were senior monks, saw us move an inch, they’d hit us with a stick. In the morning, after waking up, we had to do 108 prostrations in only 10 minutes. Up and down, up and down…. The Korean terminology for this kind of intensive retreat is kyol che, which means ‘very tight dharma.’ You have to be very fast, very precise, always in the moment. There is no time to think, wander off, and daydream. If you fall behind, you get hit. There is nothing symbolic about these blows. Thwack! You dare not whimper or cringe…you have to bow and gently say, ‘thank you.’ In Korean. And then there is the pain, so much pain. Tears roll down from your eyes the moment you move your legs as you come out of the full lotus. There is so much pain that you don’t know where the pain is coming from…. And then the food. Kimchi all the time, kimchi and white rice. The kimchi smells like rotten eggs. It was repulsive…it made me gag, and I had to force down every bite. It was the only food, so you either ate it or starved! For seven days and nights in the middle of the retreat we were subjected to what is called in Chinese yong men jin jing, which translates as ‘great courageous diligence.’ This was an even more intensive practice than your run-of-the-mill Kyol Che. For 7 days and nights we were not allowed to lie down. Twenty four hours of continuous sitting practice for 7 straight days. We learned how to sleep while sitting, but when you were caught dozing, you were hit. You learned to sleep without moving. Before going into this retreat they warned us that it was called the demon training camp. We called it the cave of the tiger.”
Comment: Guo Jun is wise enough to recognize that this is not for everyone; that in fact few could survive such a regime for very long, and therefore it would be counterproductive. Even in his own case, of all the monks that began this retreat with him only about half survived to finish it—the others all would bail out at some point. What is most remarkable is that for most Chan monks this kind of retreat is only done once or twice in one’s monastic life, but Guo Jun did it a number of times—one year he did it 3 times in that same year. You might think that this is a kind of performance trick of a “spiritual Olympics,” or an attempt to “force” enlightenment as it were. Well, that certainly may be a possibility for some seekers, but it was not the case for Guo Jun. It stemmed more from his supremely intense determination to give himself totally to that Buddhist practice; and even if we do not wish to follow him in that aspect of his life, and he would be the first one to advise against it for most of us, we still can learn that lesson of determination which is an absolutely essential ingredient of all spiritual paths.”

Speaking of enlightenment, Guo Jun has some wise and incisive comments: “How can we tell whether enlightenment has occurred? When does a teacher test a disciple? Does the student say : ‘I’m prepared, now you can test me.’ No, the teacher usually tests the disciple when the disciple least expects it. This is when state of mind is most natural, in its original state…. Chan masters do not say, ‘I have a feeling I’m going to be enlightened soon. Enlightenment is close!’ There is no such thing. All Chan masters became awakened and enlightened when they least expected it. Chan masters don’t think about enlightenment; they don’t think about awakening; they only think about practice, practice, and practice. As a result, they never expect enlightenment, and then enlightenment comes. If you just keep practicing, and you do not grasp at enlightenment or run away from it, enlightenment will get you. All the Chan masters only want to practice; they don’t want to be enlightened or awakened. As a result they became enlightened and awakened. No Chan masters wanted to be Chan masters. And as a result, they became masters of Chan.”

And then there is this provocative teaching: “Sitting itself will not give you enlightenment. Meditation will not give it to you. It will only lead you to the brink. Retreating from the world will not liberate you. Happiness is not found in a secluded forest hut or an isolated cave. Enlightenment comes when you connect to the world. Only when you truly connect with everyone and everything else do you become enlightened. Only by going deeply and fully into the world do you attain liberation. This is the meaning of the star—the sudden illumination of our connection to the rest of the universe.”

Comment: A remarkable statement. The reference to the “star” pertains to the story of Gautama Buddha, who achieved full enlightenment after a whole night of meditation when in the early dawn he saw the morning star. The teaching here seems to contradict that of some other notable figures, like Milarepa, who advised people to “flee the world” and live in solitude. And of course our own Desert Fathers, like Antony and Arsenius, counseled the “seeker” to “flee the world.” The so-called discord is only a superficial difference in emphasis and Guo Jun’s words actually point to the same deep reality which is to awaken to the interconnectedness of all that is real. In a sense one could say “different strokes for different folks” in that some people will get to that reality one way and others another, but that all journey toward that same point of connection. The hermit in his cave is also “going deeply and fully into the world” as Merton was fond of pointing out, and most persons in society are actually evading that reality by trying to ground their lives on their individualistic ego self. It is actually this that we must “flee.” Interestingly enough the modern world mimics this spiritual drive in all the gizmos it provides for “connectedness”—but this is mostly to keep that ego from feeling isolated which it is by nature and to keep up an appearance of being connected to the world. Also, fascinating is the fact that Dostoievesky’s Father Zosima and Alyosha are such prime examples of what Guo Jun points to here! Read that section on the monk in The Brothers Karamazov!

Finally, Guo Jun is not blind to the problems of modern Buddhism: “Over the years in China, Buddhism deteriorated and nowadays among many Chinese, there is the impression that Buddhism is only about praying for the deceased. Tok tok cheng is onomatopoeic Asian slang that mimics the sound of the striking of the wooden block and ringing of the bowls in Buddhist ritual. It makes fun of empty, silly services that became the way monasteries and monks supported themselves by officiating at funeral services, chanting, striking the block, and ringing the bowl. Tok tok cheng. This kind of empty commercialization of Buddhism and exploitation of the importance Chinese people put on funeral practices caused monks to become known as parasitic maggots and worms who live in and feed off the rice of others…. Funerals must be grand in China to signify that you are an important person. There can be thirty monks, all chanting, a full orchestra, lots of food, and offerings of all kinds. The belief is that chanting creates merit that accrues to the deceased and ensures a better rebirth. Professional mourners may be employed who beat their heads and weep, pound the floor and carry on, all for a fee. The monks are very much part of the show, part of ushering the deceased through the ten halls of hell by burning joss paper and hell money (US one-dollar bills are popular; George Washington represents the king of hell who you are bribing to allow you to pass through the ten halls)…. Chan became entwined with these cultural superstitions, and it was enmeshed in the way we Chinese believe that life and death are permeable and interconnected. The folk superstitions of China became the bread and butter of Chan monks and monasteries, much to the detriment of the religion.”

Comment: The problem that Guo Jun talks about here is peculiar to China and other parts of Asia, but Buddhism in the U.S. has a whole other set of problems that are equally an obstacle to a healthy and authentic development of that religion. As I have pointed out in more than one posting, all the major religious traditions are equally seriously afflicted with a kind of obscurantism and superstition and fundamentalism and superficiality. One has to walk carefully and alertly on the religious path in order not to be misled. Simple Chinese peasants and well-to-do, college-educated Americans are equally vulnerable to what is in effect an “appearance” of religion, not the real thing.

One last thing: In India and in South Asia begging for food by the monks was an acceptable practice and so it became part of their spiritual practice. Cultural patterns and practices are always intertwined with spirituality. When Buddhism came to China, it was another story. The Chinese have always looked down on begging of any kind. To live off alms is simply unacceptable. So Chan monasticism developed the notion of work as part of their spiritual practice. And so the monks became self-sufficient to a large degree. This is very much like Benedictine monasticism in the West in this regard at least. Of course modern China is a whole different story and presents so many problems to a real presence of Buddhist monasticism that it can hardly said to even be there in relation to the numbers of its population. Modern China, even as Guo Jun recognizes and admits, is rampant with materialism, greed, commercialism and the drive for monetary success to such an extent that it even dwarfs us in the U.S.—and that’s saying a lot!!

All quotes are from Guo Jun’s book: Essential Chan Buddhism

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