Natural Buddhist Martial Arts

The term ‘natural’ within the context of this essay refers to any response to external aggression that originates within the human mind as is manifest through the human body, unaided by modern technology, or any outside support.  Natural refers to making use of what is already there, rather than being assisted by a developed, or sophisticated device, designed by another and developed over many years.  This does not include the natural environment or attributes occurring within it.  For instance, parts of a tree, rocks, water, and geography may be used, and this includes such weapons as a staff (and derivatives), the bow and arrow, and bladed weapons.  The human intellect has the ability to look at objects and see clearly certain interactive connections that can be used for self-defence purposes.  This use of the environment is ‘natural’, immediate and is associated with the ordinary human need to ‘survive’.  Survival requires the placement of the body into a certain and beneficial alignment with the inhabited world around.  The human mind is aware of the need to survive a priori.  It is the need to eat, keep warm and dry, to reproduce, and to avoid injury and illness as much as possible, as well as recovering from such experiences.  The environment is often hostile in and of itself.  Natural disasters have the power to wipe out entire species in one event, or slowly deplete the gene-pool overtime through the continuous taking of life.  Humanity has developed a sense of impending doom from the environment it has had to inhabit over thousands and millions of years.  The irony is that the environment that ‘kills’ is also the environment that ‘heals’ and ‘protects’.  It envelops the human body that is able to move more or less independently within it.  The feet, although touching the ground, are not directly connected to it, like a plant or tree.  Naturalness also refers to the human mind and body itself, and within the context of self-defence refers to the mind and body being used ‘where it is’, with no augmentation whatsoever from the environment, to respond to externally threatening situations, which within this context has to be expanded in definition beyond that of a potentially hostile material environment, and include physical threats from other living entities such as wild animals and other humans.  Generally speaking it is the threats from other humans that martial systems have been developed to repel.  Of course, humans, like animals, often engage in group hunting rituals that make use of the forward planning capacity of the human intellect to out-wit animals in a hunt so that they may be killed for the material benefits their bodies provide the human pursuers.  Offensive techniques of chasing, out–manoeuvring, cornering and killing, that have been applied to wild animals in the past, have also been adapted to counter aggression from human individuals or groups that have psychologically defined themselves as ‘different’ and ‘separate’ from other human groups, and in so doing, defined those other human beings as permanent ‘outsiders’ and as a consequence, legitimate targets of the hunting ritual.  Separate and distinct human groupings develop a mind-set of ‘belonging’ that applies only to those individuals that are already ‘known’ – demoting other human beings to the status of ‘unknown threats’.  This kind of thinking has pursued human beings into the present, with the development of nation states and arbitrary geographical boundary markers which are periodically fought over through the use of modern, (i.e. ‘technological’) human warfare.  Large human groups often fight one another, and this habit is reflected within society where inter-personal violence is a regular occurrence for many people.  Aggressively minded individuals can attack other aggressively minded individuals – and exactly the same culturally conditioned mind-set fights itself through the bodies of different individuals – or, aggressively minded individuals can arbitrarily attack other human beings who do not share their violent disposition and are, therefore, completely unable to defend themselves in the face of such an attack.  This kind of aggression can be harnessed by governmental agencies contained within a nation state, and disciplined into military and paramilitary uses.  Individuals who are not particularly aggressively minded can retain their relatively calm mind whilst learning martial techniques and survival strategies.  Learning to defend the human body from an external attack is an adaption of the ability to hunt, in response to the potential threat of being ‘hunted’.  Once an individual or a group perceives another individual or group as the ‘excluded other’, the conditions for self defence exist.  Therefore the environment, the human beings that inhabit it and the specific psychological thought patterns related to the production of physical force, may be termed ‘natural’ as these attributes are present without the requirement for them to be developed or otherwise ‘contrived’ in some artificial manner.

The term ‘combat’ refers to the actual use of the human body by the mind to react to experienced aggression within the immediate environment.  It is the awareness of a threat perceived through the senses and understood as such by the human mind.  In this respect, the ordinary human mind perceives the world through a dualistic filter that sees the human body as the attribute that must be protected from an environment that exists permanently exterior to it.  This perceived threat includes any and all attributes that can inspire fear and cause harm.  The environment, the climate, wild animals, the suffering of illnesses and injuries, and of course, the potential threats that other human beings represent.  The most direct of responses is the ability to move the human body itself in the face of present dangers.  The ability to move the body appropriately can prevent injury and death at the point when both could be suffered directly.  This ability is the essence of all effective self defence, and such is not merely a physical response, but is rather an attribute of an aware human mind that sees clearly what is happening, why it is happening, and consequentially what can be done to prevent physical injury and death.  These calculations have to be instantaneous if they are to be effective, as the attacker always holds the element of surprise over those who need to defend themselves.  This physical advantage owned by the unprovoked aggressor is over-come by a superior surveying of the situation at hand.  The human mind has the potential to ‘see’ things in a direct and immediate manner when under pressure from the environment.  It is an instinctive awareness that cuts through the usual chatter that exists within the mind.  As a result it provides the defender with an existential advantage over the arbitrary aggressor, providing that the aggressor’s first move is not successful.  The aggressor is making use of a very limited advantage that works through surprise, but the surprise as an attribute is short-lived if the intended target is not immediately neutralised during its initial deployment.  Instinctive awareness informs the aggressor that an advantage is to be had in an unprovoked attack; as such an attack breaks the usual norms of life, and immediately plunges a relatively peaceful, everyday situation into one of adrenalin-fuelled survival.  Such an attack can work due to its inherent ability to change ‘peace’ into ‘violence’ without any warning.  Of course, its effectiveness depends upon no ritualised warning being issued at all.  There is no posturing, or display of potential power, but rather the direct application of physical force through violent action.  Equally important is that exactly the same instinctive awareness is providing the defender with a much more effective, long-term counter-strategy, (providing the aggressor’s first move is not successful, and that the defender’s mind and body are not rendered immobile at the point of attack) by the sudden chemical changes that occur within, that are changing the inner terrain so that the defender can respond in a beneficial manner.  Some times instinctive behaviour, without prior training, can respond effectively, despite the fear associated with the ‘suddenness’ of the violence and change in circumstance.  Self defence systems, whilst providing physical techniques, deployment and mobility theories, should also, through their training regimes, assist the practitioner to become aware of what it is like to experience intense fear within when confronted with an aggressive environment without.  This familiarity is providing an inner and outer training that is essential if self defence is to be effective.  Self defence can not be effective if it is merely a method of moving the arms and legs in a non-threatening environment.  Self defence training should educate the practitioner in exactly what to expect within the mind should an attack occur, because what happens in the mind immediately manifests within the body.  Fear is usually the over-loading of the human system with chemicals that are actually designed to maintain its survival.  The problem occurs around the ‘suddenness’ of its deployment, which is essential for survival considering the threat.  Effective self defence educates the practitioner to both accommodate and appreciate these inner changes and perceive them as necessary for survival, rather than as a detriment to it.  Self defence should be as much an inner education as it is an outer technique.

Developed martial systems are often a blend of attack and defence, harnessing the beneficial elements of either response, whilst down-playing, or removing the negative aspects.  Invariably these systems have been used in out and out warfare between the competing militaries of different human groupings, and adapted by individuals for inter-personal usage.  This development is an observable, historical process driven by innovation.  When one human grouping developed a particular type of weaponry technology, this gave a short-term military advantage over the perceived opponent, until that opponent developed a counter-technology thus changing continuously the balance of power created by the threat of a military response.  This process is clearly observable today and appears to have developed through an agrarian phase into an industrial and technological stage.  Generally speaking, traditional Asian martial arts developed during the early (pre-industrial age) agrarian times, surviving intact well into the 20th and 21st centuries.  These arts comprise of the use of the human body through various combative strategies, that make distinct use of the arms and legs in a manner based upon a recognisable attribute often related to the movement or attitude of an animal, or of a particular way of organising the human mind and body for military purposes – such as ‘long fist’ (changquan).   Many of these styles have either been invented by a particular Chinese family, or borrowed directly from the military and become associated with a Chinese family name, such has been the association within Chinese culture of the ability of a human grouping to be able to defend itself, and the survival of particular Chinese clan names down through the generations.  With this association has been integrated the requirement of spiritual development, particularly with relation to Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism.  This spiritual emphasis has added to the requirement of physical survival, the necessity to associate martial training not only with requirement of over-coming an outer opponent, but also in over-coming the inner opponent of human ignorance.  Even before the arrival of Indian Buddhism in China, Confucian teaching directly associated an advanced martial ability with a greatly developed and ennobled personality.  Studying the spiritual books, ingesting the deep meaning, and performing well with the bow and arrow, became indistinguishable.  When Indian Buddhism adapted into the Chinese cultural milieu, the idea that martial practice was as much a spiritual activity, as it was a physical necessity, permeated into it, along with various Confucian and Daoist thinking, creating a thoroughly sinotised form of Buddhism, unique to China.  The potential destructive force contained within structured martial systems is morally tempered by the spiritual discipline inherent within the learning process itself.  This attitude essentially ‘spiritualises’ an activity that has developed upon the material plane itself, that has the function of defending the practitioner from external attack, and if need be inflicting physical damage upon the bodies of others.  This transforms fighting on the physical plane out of its purely materialist manifestation.  Traditional Asian martial arts, although making use of unarmed combat, also use certain weaponry such as spear, staff, sword, bow and various other pre-modern technologies.   These weapons of wood and metal are used as appendages to the human body, and are used within the structures of the unarmed movements themselves.  Generally speaking these weapons are made use of in a very similar manner to how kicks, punches, blocks and holds, etc, are used within a particular style.  A style, particularly within the Chinese tradition is a habit of response to an external threat, preserved within a particular set of movements and passed on from one generation to the next.  These preserved sets of movements create the ‘form’ of the particular style, that presents itself to human perception.  Styles differ due to the existence of diverse definitions of how to effectively respond to a physical threat.  Each style is relevant to the conditions that have produced it – different conditions, therefore, have created different styles.  As a style is often associated with a clan name, the concept of ‘lineage’ is created whereby the style (like the family name itself), is passed down through the generations unaltered and uninterrupted – with the idea that the style itself can not be changed, just as the family name can not be changed.  Survival of the human body whilst confronted by an external threat is intimately associated with the idea that the clan structure survives all outer challenges to its existence.

In modern society, traditional Chinese clan associations still exist, as do martial arts styles closely associated with them.  There are family styles passed within generations and there are styles that use to be passed on within families, but which now have branches that are taught outside of the family environment in public halls where any one can attend as they see fit, and who do not have to acknowledge or respect the Chinese culture that has given rise to the art they practice, or understand the spirituality that underlies the martial structure.  In a sense, this is a structured return to purely materialist martial practice, which does not recognise any requirement for higher spiritual development.  However, within China the Ch’an school of Buddhism has always embraced martial cultivation within the context of a thorough mind development.  Certain Ch’an temples – such as the Shaolin – have become very famous, but in reality many Ch’an temples have facilitated martial practice all over China.  However, martial practice within the body is acknowledged as actually occurring within the mind itself, and it is through the mind that physical mastery is developed.  Within the Ch’an tradition, there is no duality between the mind, body or environment, as all things arise and pass away within the mind.  Martial perfection is nothing other than realising the Mind Ground.  In reality, the act of seated meditation is martial practice, with the movements of the arms and legs being merely an extrapolation of the mind itself.  Therefore martial practice only becomes ‘natural combat’ if the body is realised as appearing within the mind, and that essence of the mind is thoroughly realised.  Different styles of martial arts are simply physical manifestations of different thoughts in the mind.  Mastery of mind and body lies beyond the thought process, and Ch’an Buddhist practice provides a method to purify the qi.  This involves reconciling the past, present and future into the eternal ‘now’.

Bringing the past into the present is both easy and difficult.  It is difficult because many people have a mind-set that is trained to take notice only of what is directly in front of the senses; it is easy in the sense that just behind the ‘immediacy’ of sensory perception lies the entire history of a person’s incarnations.  These are not real, as there is no permanent ‘self’ to link them together, but there are changing trends of karma that link one life to another.   The past – even thousands of years ago – is in reality merely an instant.  Time and space does not exist in reality the way that it appears to exist to the ordinary senses.  In a sense, all lifetimes are contained within the present; this includes the present life, the past lives, and the future lives.  Nothing is set in stone, even if there are certain trends that can be discerned.  The Mind Ground – or the enlightened mind itself has no lineages or schools in itself – because it is perfect.  It is only in the deluded human world of duality that schools and lineages appear to exist.  These are varying pathways that lead innumerable deluded beings toward the goal of enlightenment which is beyond dualism and method.  Karma is created through the human will.  Through desire this pulls the world into existence, and sets the agenda for daily life.  Deluded beings think that they inhabit a world that they move within, whilst in reality the act of will, through sensory experience, actually creates objects passing across the senses themselves, misinterpreting the experience the wrong way around.  The world is pulled into position around the senses, and constantly flows across them.  In reality, the karmic entity that thinks that it is an individual does not move at all.  Even if a person undergoes tremendous experiences, and travels around the world, or even into space, it is in reality the karmic will continuously ‘pulling’ reality together around the senses in a constant flow of apparent being.  Every single experience that is happening to the mind and body, that is all the external components and inner reactions, are created not by the externals themselves, but rather by the human ‘will’ which ‘pulls’ everything together.  This ‘pulling’ is termed ‘desire’, or ‘greed’.  The human body is pulled around a karmically created consciousness, which then pulls an ever-changing world of external objects together as they pass across the senses – which mistakenly appear constant and real.  As human beings have a similar ‘will’ motivated by ‘gathering’, a consensus of delusion is achieved.  Everyone’s body is similar, even accounting for diversity, and the karmically created external world is exactly the same, despite the natural variation it contains.  Will power is karma.  It creates the mind, body and environment, and the passing flow of events that are considered ‘everyday’ life.  Nothing exists outside of the reality – except the enlightened mind; this does not exist ‘outside’ of deluded reality, but is the actual basis of deluded existence itself.  Seeing through the ‘will’, which the Buddha saw as being comprised of greed, hatred and delusion, is the Buddhist method.  The underlying essence of existing reality is of course its empty foundation.  However, enlightened reality is neither ‘empty’ nor ‘full’, it is both and neither.  Things are empty of permanent structures, and they are ‘empty’ of emptiness.  The realisation of emptiness cuts immediately through the apparent world of sensory awareness.  The realisation of emptiness is the medicine to the illness of dualistic thinking.

All Buddhist methods and pathways are karmically conditioned and therefore the product of habit in the dualistic world.  Master Xu Yun taught that when the true mind was misunderstood, the Ch’an method was set-up.  The Ch’an method itself is a ‘wise’ delusion which is used as an expedient method to put things right.  The Mind Ground and its function are beyond any method that is used to realise it.  Methods are karmic creations based upon desire.  This may be considered the ‘wise’ use of desire, or the practice of one lesser poison to over-come a much greater poison.  Buddhist methods suit different people due to their karmic propensities.  As time and space is an illusion – re-birth is also an illusion – but this acknowledgement does mean that re-birth does not happen.  Re-birth occurs due to the power of the human will to pull phenomena into existence in a manner that allows for immeasurable variation.  The base delusion of a separate reality is physical matter, and this is the same physical matter – regardless of its diversity of manifestation.  Each human mind has a karmic frequency associated with it that pre-determines that type of life it lives, and whether or not it will be drawn to a spiritual path, and the extent or ‘depth’ to which such an attraction occurs.  The human mind can and will approach reality from every possible type of direction.  The number is beyond measure and the diverse Buddhist teachings represent this reality.  Dharma can be deep or shallow, subtle or coarse.  A human mind can develop depth throughout many existences and as the wisdom deepens, the Dharmic path is adjusted accordingly.  Therefore, particular Buddhist methods may be retained for life-times, but as the individual progresses in realisation, the method obviously changes to match the level of insight.  This brings the attention firmly back to the idea that all methods without exception are delusionary.  When a method facilitates a human being into the enlightened state, the delusionary method itself naturally dissolves from its one-sided existence (in a dualistic state), into the all embracing void that contains all things.  No method survives the enlightening experience, because all methods derive from a deluded mind seeking to free itself from its own corrupted state.  When an illness is cured, the medicine is no longer required.

The expedient wisdom of the Buddha gives rise to methods designed to cure dualism and the suffering it creates.  This kind of wisdom uses delusion against itself until delusion no longer exists in that manner.  Grades of attainment, if they are not complete and total enlightenment, are various grades of lesser delusion that nevertheless still exist within the deluded mind.  There is no such thing as partial enlightenment.  Although a student may carefully progress through various declared stages of verified meditational experience, these experiences, although useful, must be given-up so that complete enlightenment can be realised immediately, ‘here and now’.  These stages are important, but attachment to experience is itself a great barrier upon the path of mind realisation.  Stages that move toward enlightenment are only preparations for the final realisation of ‘emptiness’ that contains all things – they are not indicative of the enlightenment experience itself.  The methods exist to slowly and gradually disentangle the mind from its karmic entanglements.  This process strips the mind of various layers of deluded behaviour in a careful and systematic manner.  This creates a wiser mind and a better individual, as destructive behaviour is replaced with thoughtfulness and kind action.  Such a process also creates a positive karma that moves definitely toward enlightenment and away from delusion.  This expedient pathway is important for world peace and the cultivation of wisdom within existence itself.  This is why these methods exist and explains why each distinct pathway has a set method of progression associated with it.  This is an important observation, as a student on a particular path follows a tradition built-up over hundreds of years that understands cause and effect, and that has been tried and tested by many generations of practitioners.  A particular pathway has a specific direction associated with it, and the teacher shows the student the exact direction to take.  The student must follow the path exactly if the expected achievements are to be attained.  A deviation from this methodology takes the spiritual energy (qi) into unchartered and untested territories that the teacher is not familiar with.  In this case the student can become lost, and the training process wasted.  This is why tradition is important as it preserves intact certain pathways of qi development.  Qi progresses from a state of yin and yang dualism, to a state of completion united at its source.  Qi itself is how the ‘will’ manifests in the world – qi itself is the world and entire universe.  At its most subtle it seems mysterious and unusual, and those who understand its working can appear to produce unusual physical and psychological abilities.  These abilities are the product of realising the Mind Ground and completely refining how qi manifests.  Enlightened qi is purified of any deluded intent – therefore it can be used in an unusual way that contradicts standard materialist thinking.  Purified qi, however, is only the effect or function of the enlightened mind and never its objective.  Purified qi only occurs when the Mind Ground is clearly perceived, although a certain degree of qi manipulation can be created within certain martial and medical lineages, but enlightened qi transcends even these advanced levels of attainment.

Lineages deal specifically with a certain frequency of qi development.  A frequency that has been thoroughly explored, examined, understood and developed into an exact pathway.  A lineage is a form of self-contained knowledge and wisdom free of any disruptive, outside influences.  Any outside influence has the potential power to cause a diversion away from the intended objective and in a direction that the lineage has no knowledge of.  The differing lineages, methods and pathways represent the many access routes that the human mind needs to take toward enlightenment by lifting itself out of the mire of delusion.  The expression of qi, and the teachings associated with it must be ‘pure’ in the sense that it does not become sullied by external factors.  External factors must ultimately be integrated into the method by the realisation of emptiness, but such factors, as being representative of dualism, must not be allowed to enter intact, as this allows for disruption from the inside.  However, once emptiness is realised all is reconciled into the Great Dao.  An effective lineage provides a method that creates the inner and outer conditions that allow for a breakthrough into the Mind Ground, regardless of the particular method itself.  Having discussed about the necessary purity of the lineage or method, it is important to understand that a single person can participate in more than one method or lineage at the same time, by focusing upon different aspects each method provides at particular times throughout the day.  This works because the chosen methods have a combined effect upon a single mind over-time, but with the understanding that neither method is expediently confused with the other method.  The methods are not integrated in such a scenario but remain free of one another’s influence.  Instead, each method drills into the deluded layers of the mind’s ignorance and together hastens the eventual breakthrough.  With careful management and good instruction, various methods can be employed together providing the practitioner does not fall into the trap of becoming a collector of pointless experiences, or superficial spiritual trivia.  However, such commitment to self-cultivation is rare, as many, when confronted with more than one method become hopelessly confused by the alternatives, with each method cancelling the other out, through indecision and shallow thinking.  Just as the will power pulls all physical things into a continuous existence, the lineage or method drives through the physical and psychological manifestation.  This is not a matter of discussion or opinion, but rather a matter of direct experience.  The deluded will power has the ability to set-up all kinds of distortions and barriers that prevent the ‘seeing through’ of its true nature.  This includes the intellectual function which must be disengaged from the practice itself.  The intellect of the unenlightened mind is a very powerful device that has the ability to create and destroy in the world.  However, its functioning obscures the Mind Ground and it must be brought to a halt.  This is achieved through the chosen meditation method, which is contained within a particular lineage or pathway.  The mind must be ‘stilled’ so that its essence can be seen.  Gradual methods ‘still’ the mind gradually, whilst direct methods attempt to ‘still’ the mind immediately. Whatever the pathway, the eventual effect is exactly the same.

Stilling the mind is only the beginning of the enlightening process.  Stilling, in and of itself is only the cessation of the endless stream of thoughts – this is not enlightenment, but it is a very crucial stage of attainment.  The method must take the practitioner beyond this attainment.  Stilling thoughts is often mistaken for the experience of ‘emptiness’.  It is a type of emptiness – as the mind is now free of thoughts, but this is only the experience of a ‘lack’ of some thing.  It is a refreshing state that is peaceful and tranquil – such is the relief the practitioner experiences that this stage is often mistaken for the goal of enlightenment itself.  However, this state has cleared the surface mind of obscuration, and the meditative method must now progress further into the depths of the mind structure itself.  This appears empty because as of yet there is no insight into the mind’s deeper structure.  True emptiness has not yet been experienced, but with dedication and good guidance, such an experience should not be far away.  With further training, the depths of the mind are penetrated and insight into true emptiness is gained.  This insight itself is ‘empty’ of structure.  As the fibre of the mind is cognised – an all embracing oneness is realised that includes all things.  Perception is turned the right way around, and the body and environment are clearly seen as manifestations within the mind that is no longer limited to existing just within the human head or brain.  There is a spacious awareness of emptiness that has no barrier or limitation.  Within this awareness all things arise and pass away.  The mind itself exists within the ten directions and exists beyond material definition.  It reflects all things like a mirror.  What was once thought to be solid is now viewed as merely ‘passing’ and the practitioner, although apparently existing in a physical form is now free of the tyranny of materialism.  Time and space are seen as being present in the ‘now’ – with this ‘nowness’ existing for all time.  Karma is transcended in this state as the will is dissolved into all embracing oneness.  Actions occur, but they no longer have the habitual power they once possessed through the deluded mind that grasped after everything it came into contact with.  This enlightened state is the normal state, which is obscured by delusion in the ordinary mind.  This is why spiritual development is both easy and difficult.

Natural combat has nothing to do with fighting, and yet as a response to violence it brings peace to the world.  The true mind reflects all karmically created phenomena clearly and the body is in exactly the correct position for an immediate and effective response.  There is no anger, aggression or fear in the enlightened state.  There is no such thing as ‘fighting’ between different individuals as all duality is transcended.  There is only empty movement appearing within the mind and all contradictions are resolved.  Martial arts in this state become an advanced re-balancing technique that removes all dualistic attributes appearing within the mind and body environment.  Violence can not occur, as the conditions do not arise that would allow it to manifest.  The body and mind moves in a relaxed and uncontrived manner, creating the appropriate martial shapes as they are required.  There is only a sense of profound peace even within the midst of intense combat.  The enlightened mind permeates the body and environment and allows for a profound and thoroughly new interpretation of reality.  This wisdom transforms how the mind trains the body, and how it is used within a martial context.  There is a direction of movement coupled with a pure intent and no distinction can be found between the two.  This understanding sets the agenda for the highest level of spiritual and martial mastery and its teachings are beyond the simplistic building blocks associated with ordinary martial training.  Within this physical-spiritual space, martial movement is no different to the breathing process itself, which is the basis to the entire working of the biological body.  The breath is the key that opens the doorway to the uniting of mind and body, but it is the essence of the mind itself that gives rise to the breath and the physical body it inhabits.  Purifying the mind of all negative karma reduces the requirement to respond martially within the environment, as the violent conditions do not arise, but when a martial response is required it is both swift and effective.  In reality there is no distinction between ‘mind’ and ‘martial’ as both arise from the same Mind Ground.  The realisation of this reality may be considered Buddhist martial arts.

Xu Yun’s Letter to Chiang Kai-shek


In the early months of 1943 (when Xu Yun was in his 104th year), he had a conversation with the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) regarding the Buddhist teachings (Dharma), the philosophical principles of materialism and idealism, and the theology of Christianity.  Thirteen years earlier, Chiang Kai-shek had converted to (Methodist) Christianity in 1929, and since that time had believed that China’s future could be moulded and directed from principles contained within the Bible itself, and this belief influenced policies such as the ‘Three Principles of the People’ and the ‘New Life Movement.’  Xu Yun discussed these matters personally with Chiang Kai-shek, and then wrote his answers down in the form of a letter. This letter appears in the complete Chinese text of Xu Yun’s autobiography (Xu Yun He Shang Nian Pu) – in the chapter dealing with the notable events of his 104th year – but is not contained within the English translation created by Charles Luk (1898-1978).  This may be explained by the fact that Luk could have been working from an earlier, less complete Chinese edition.   The scholar, Cen Xue Lu (1882-1963), who worked as Xu Yun’s editor in Hong Kong, created a number of Chinese editions throughout the 1950’s, with each new edition expanding to include more information and facts.  Within the English translation, an editorial note (written by Charles Luk) is found which explains that the letter itself had already been rendered into English and published in the World Buddhist Wesak Annual in 1965 – around the time that Luk was working upon the autobiography itself.  As the 1965 version of the letter is difficult to find, this new rendition has been produced from the original Chinese text and is designed to introduce a new generation to this remarkable Xu Yun text.

Xu Yun’s Letter to Chiang Kai-shek – 1943/44.

Buddhism is an international religion today, and it alone contains the complete teaching about reality.  The other two dominant forces in the world are monotheism and materialism, but these two teachings either deny, or do not recognise the Buddhist theory of karma that operates on every plane of reality.  The Christian god rewards those who believe in him, but punishes those who do not, therefore Christianity can not maintain peace in the world.

God is the mind, and the mind is god.  Therefore, like the mind, the god concept must be empty of any permanent substance.  By turning the gaze within, the three realms of desire, form and formlessness can be clearly discerned.  Christianity does not recognise the karmically created universe, but instead believes that the universe was created by a god and operates through different, unconnected laws.  The materialists do not accept even the presence of a god or a religious concept, and view the world merely as an unfolding of random, disconnected events.

Buddhism may be described as idealistic, but idealistic philosophy is a very broad subject.  Generally speaking, the various systems of idealistic thinking are not the same as that of Sakyamuni Buddha, as they are not the consequence of the enlightened experience.  Sakyamuni Buddha saw clearly the delusion of birth and death and how living beings are trapped in its cycle, through the generation of greed, hatred and delusion within the mind.  Those who follow the materialist path do not recognise that the processes of their inner mind create the world they inhabit.  The Christian world is based upon a duality between those who believe and accept the existence of a god concept (the ‘good’), and those who do not believe or accept the god concept (the ‘evil’).  Sakyamuni Buddha saw reality clearly.  He taught that duality is an illusion, and that any one who looks into their minds effectively, will see through this illusion.  Cultivated wisdom sees the world clearly; when looking at a buffalo, the buffalo is clearly seen, but when insight is lacking, the buffalo might be seen as present, when in fact it is absent.  Or when the buffalo is present, only part of its physical appearance is perceived.  The (deluded) dualistic viewpoint of the world does not perceive the totality of reality as created by the mind – as a consequence, its vision is incomplete.  Buddhist meditational practice is the effective method for permanently wiping-out delusion and duality.       

Buddhism as a complete philosophy, not only teaches about how the physical universe is created (through karmic habit), but also clearly and concisely teaches how the physical body (through the sense organs) relates to the world, and how the body and mind can be ordered so that the Mind Ground can be realised through meditation.  As the physical universe emerges from the deluded mind, the Surangama Sutra teaches how the deluded mind can be disentangled from all externals.  This complete understanding of existence and non-existence pre-dates modern science.  The bodhisattva vow of compassion (to save all living beings), permeates the Buddhist Sutras and is a great service to the world.

Buddhism is a complete philosophy that does not use trickery or deceit to confuse the people.  There are people following Buddhism from every walk of life, because Buddhism has the power to unite religion and science.  More than this, however, Buddhism brings the three religions of China– i.e. Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism – into a great accord.  Buddhism is like a stove that melts everything together – acknowledging the essential, unchanging ‘origin’ of all things. 

Today (1943), the country of Japan takes Buddhism as a national religion – but its leaders behave like uneducated warlords and defame the true teachings of the Buddha which are based upon compassion and respect for all life.  The warlords of Japan blindly believe in the use of military force, and in their ignorance, believe that invading countries and killing innocent people leads to karmic merit.  This distorted thinking will end in defeat.

This is an example of ignorance dictating the understanding of Buddhism.  This is what happens when superstition rules society, and a national religion is deliberately distorted to meet temporary political and military objectives.  The people are deceived by such actions, and their karmic fruits become ever more hellish.  Buddhism has clear regulations to guide its presence within society, so that the Dharma does not become corrupted.  The Buddha’s doctrine clearly explains, step by step, how to gather the senses, and return the concentration back to the Mind Ground.  Buddhist teaching is an antidote to confusion both within and without.  Wherever Buddhism is practiced, within the home or the monastery, the Mind Ground emanates compassion to all beings on every plane.  The bodhisattva continuously works for the welfare of all living beings.  For these reasons Buddhism can be used as a positive force within the State. 

Killing others is caused by evil intent within the mind.  The bodhisattva does not live this way, because through following the Buddha’s path, all evil intent is swept away.  When ignorance remains murder with all kinds of weapons may be the result, but by cultivating goodwill and positive karmic merit, this kind of misconduct is eradicated.  Such is the guiding strength of the path of the Buddha, which reveals all truth in a solid manner.

The bodhisattva, whose conduct is derived from the cultivation of universal wisdom and unending compassion within the absorption of meditation, does not avoid the danger and difficulties of life.  A bodhisattva manifests four good conducts (amongst others) in relation to the everyday interaction with living beings all motivated by loving kindness; first there is the compassionate generating and sharing of worldly resources and wealth, without discrimination.  Secondly, the Buddha-dharma is taught to people in a manner that they can understand, and good advice is always given because the bodhisattva understands the true nature of all things.  Thirdly, the bodhisattva demonstrates the karmic benefit of good behaviour for all beings, and that by following the Buddha’s path life can be protected.  Fourth, the bodhisattva unites all beings through the example of wisdom and selfless conduct, this achievement is because the true character of all those encountered is fully understood.  This is why the path of the Buddha and the Bodhisattva is positive for society and the world.

The Mahayana teaching of the bodhisattva transcends all other paths and is cultivated at its root through meditation and bodily discipline created by following the Buddhist precepts.  As the Mahayana – the ‘great path’ – is open to all beings, it may be called universally useful as a teaching.  Another of its practices is that of the Pure Land, where chanting the Buddha’s name with a sincere heart eventually wipes away all bad karma and sows the positive karmic seeds of future enlightenment.  This direct method is viewed by materialists (who advocate atheism) to be a mere superstitious practice, but they are quite wrong in their assumptions.  Mindfulness is a very powerful spiritual practice; it is not comprised of magic or imagination.  Praying to the Buddha penetrates the Dharmadhatu, as Mind Ground looks toward Mind Ground.  Those without wisdom do not understand this and rely on blind faith; this is why they do not progress in their training.          

The bodhisattva path that seeks the supreme Dao is open to any one, male or female, lay-person or monastic.  Buddhist cultivation can be practiced within the home, amongst family and friends, or in a setting away from the ordinary dealings of the world.  The concept of ‘family’ is extended beyond that of those linked by birth, and incorporates all beings into one great community (datong), based upon compassion and wisdom.  In this regard the notion of filial piety is re-interpreted to mean that it is a bodhisattva’s sworn duty to ferry all beings across the sea of samsara to the shores of nirvana. 

The opinion of Mr Sun Yat-sen is that:  “Buddhism is the essence of benevolence; Buddhism is the mother of philosophy and religion.  It is also the foundation of the nation, and supports the nation through its spiritual power.  The people can not live without the idea of religion, and Buddhist research methodology can compliment scientific thinking.”

Buddhism, through its wisdom and compassion, has the potential to bring the people together both nationally and internationally, into one accord (datong).  The Buddhist philosophy has had a beneficial effect upon Chinese academic thought, and it is important that freedom of religion is maintained in China.  Buddhism shares a common spiritual essence with Daoism and Confucianism, bringing unity to the three religions.  Through the study of the Buddhist method, the mind and body are ordered, and superstition and ignorance are abandoned. 

©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2012.

The Hua Tou (話頭) Method.

The hua tou method is an effective spiritual technique designed to induce in the Ch’an practitioner nothing short than the experience of complete enlightenment itself.  As a distinct method, it probably has its origins within the Surangama Sutra which was translated into Chinese in 705 CE[1].  The key phrase found within this sutra is spoken by the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guan Yin):

‘At first by directing the hearing (ear) into the stream (Of meditation) this organ from its object was detached. 

By wiping out (the concept of) both sound and stream entry,

Both disturbance and stillness, Were clearly non-existent. 

Thus advancing step by step,

Both hearing and its object ceased;

But I did not stay where they ended.’[2] 

Many Western sources, (following the lead of many of their Chinese scholarly counter-parts), attribute either the founding of the hua tou method, or its development, to the Song Dynasty Ch’an master Dahui Zonggao (大慧宗杲 1089–1163), who is famous for his Ch’an letter writing tradition, and made extensive use of a combined gong-an – hua tou method.[3]  The attributing of a unique and distinct position for Dahui with regard to the hua tou method is, however, problematic.  Morten Schlutter, for instance, makes the following poignant observations with regard to Dahui, and the unique attributes ascribed to him with regard the hua tou method, often referred to as ‘kan hua’ (看話 – ‘look word’) when discussing Dahui:

‘Dahui’s name is inextricably connected to what has come to be known as kanhua Chan, literally “Chan of observing the key phrase,” although Dahui himself did not give it a name.  This approach to Chan practice involves focusing intensely on the crucial phrase, or “punch line” (the huatou), of a gongan.  Kanhua practice has therefore often been referred to as “gongan (or koan) introspection by Westerner writers.  As discussed in Chapter 1, gongan are highly enigmatic and frequently startling or even shocking stories about legendary Chan masters’ interactions with disciples and other interlocutors, usually taken from the records of “encounter dialogues” found in the transmission histories.  Encounter dialogue, with its disruptive language and seeming non sequiturs, has come to be considered the hallmark of Chan literature (although, in fact, Chan literature includes a wide range of different genres and styles of writing).[4]

Schlutter ascribes two important footnotes to the above paragraph that are worth quoting in their entirety:

’27. In a discussion of Dahui’s use of the gongan, Robert Buswell writes that Dahui “called this new approach to meditation kan-hua Chan.”  “Short-Cut Approach,” 347.  However, Dahui never used the term “kanhua Chan” and did not present his use of the gongan in meditation as an innovation, although it clearly was.  In fact, the term “kanhua Chan” cannot be found in any premodern work, and it seems to have been first coined by Japanese researchers.

28. The word “huatou” seems often, both before and after Dahui, to have been used synonymous with gongan, although Dahui himself clearly distinguished the two.’[5]

These facts demonstrate that master Dahui did not refer to his own enlightening method as either a ‘hua tou’, or indeed a ‘kan hua’, and did not view what he was doing as some thing ‘new’ and ‘original’.  In fact, the impression one gets from Dahui is that he is following an older tradition that has been forgotten by those around him.  For instance, this is how Dahui explains meditation to Fu Li-shen:

‘Both torpor and excitation were condemned by the former sages.  When sitting quietly, as soon as you feel the presence of either of these two diseases, just bring up the saying, “A dog has no Buddha-nature.”  Don’t exert effort to push away these two kinds of disease – just be peaceful and still right there.  Over a long time, as you become aware of saving power, this is the place where you gain power.  Nor do you have to engage in quiet meditation – this itself is meditation.’[6]

Certainly this would be true, if the date of the presence of the Surangama Sutra (705 CE) is taken into account.  Even if it were not, the fact still remains that the gong-an and hua tou methods were existent and in use prior to Dahui’s life-time.  Scholars such as Stuart Lachs, for instance, acknowledge that Dahui did not invent the hua tou, but nevertheless continues the trend of the ascription of ‘specialness’ to Dahui’s enlightening method, in this instance, the formulating of a distinct Ch’an methodology for the Ch’an School.[7]  Despite the obvious collection of reliable academic information, neither Schlutter, Buswell, nor Lachs mention the Surangama Sutra in their respective analysis of the development of the hua tou method.   Master Xu Yun (1840-1959), in his Dharma Discourse delivered at the Jade Buddha Monastery in 1953/54, does not mention master Dahui, but explains that it was in fact the Pure Land School that first utilised this method (and not the Ch’an School).[8] The Pure Land practitioners chanted the Buddha’s name continuously, but the Pure Land masters noticed that the repeating was shallow and ineffective. To remedy this, (and presumably following Avalokitesvara’s advice found in the Surangama Sutra), the Pure Land practitioners were encouraged to question ‘Who is repeating the Buddha’s name?’   Master Xu Yun states that the Ch’an School had also adopted this method due to changing times, so that the effects of dull karmic roots and excessive sensory stimulation of the modern era could be over-come through spiritual training.  This method was used to augment the Ch’an practice of the reliance upon enlightened exchanges – known as ‘gong-an’ – between masters and students.[9]  In this respect, master Xu Yun advocated the use of both the gong-an and the hua-tou method.  The gong-an is a recorded conversation between a Ch’an master and a student.  It is not just any old interaction, but one pregnant with significant meaning.  Indeed, such is the importance of the spiritual import that merely encountering the recorded words of its detail is enough to illicit a breakthrough, beyond the surface clutter of the mind.  In Chinese Ch’an, the gong-an practice consists of a direct encountering with the Mind Ground, without the cultural formality usually associated with the Japanese Zen/Ch’an tradition.  The words of the gong-an, although embodying the spiritual content, are, nevertheless quite irrelevant to the experience they enable, and should be dropped as soon as they are picked up.  The hua tou method, by comparison, is a method that focuses the mind firmly within, and away from the confusion of the senses and sense data.  Like a psychic drill, it uses a concerted ‘will’ through asking a question that begins with the word ‘who’?  Any sentence will do, as long as the question is permanently held firmly in the mind.  Xu Yun is known to have used the hua tou ‘Who is dragging this corpse around?’, whilst master Han Shan used the hua tou ‘Who is hearing?’  The hua tou method follows the technical advice given by Guan Yin (i.e. ‘Avalokitesvara bodhisattva’), and found within the Surangama Sutra.  Essentially this states that by focusing upon the organ of the ear, and turning the function of hearing back to its empty (sunyata) source, the state of enlightenment can be achieved.  If the mind, whilst turning back toward its essence, starts discriminating and thinking ‘away’ from this objective, the method of the hua-tou (word-head) is lost, and instead has been supplanted by the error of hua-wei (word-end), whereby the discriminating mind has triumphed over the meditative method and has become entwined in the tails of words, as if swinging from one to the other, with no spiritual benefit.  It should be noted, however, that the early Ch’an practitioners did not need the gong-an or hua-tou methods.  Merely being shown the mind essence through a word or action was enough for the master to reveal the Mind Ground and for the student to instantaneously perceive directly, (indeed, it is these stories that form the basis for the many gong-an collections that exist) without recourse to any intermediate device, but as times changed, the masters found that students often required some kind of expedient method to assist the transformative process.

To understand the hua tou method, it is important to understand the Chinese ideograms that comprise the concept:

The ‘話頭’ (hua tou): 話 (hua4) is written to designate the spoken word, as in a speech or conversation, here it carries the meaning of ‘word’.  頭 (tou2) denotes a chief or instigator of plans or rituals.  It refers here to ‘head’, or ‘top’, but is used in this context to refer to the ‘originator’.

Therefore, 話頭 (hua-tou) refers to the practice of realising the origin or empty essence of thought, as it manifests in the mind as ‘words’.  The error of falling into ‘word-end’ contemplation is a common failing, and involves the mind simply following the deluded, internal chatter:

The ‘word-end’ 話尾 (hua wei): 話 (hua4) is written to designate the spoken word, as in a speech or conversation, here it carries the meaning of ‘word’.  尾 (wei3) is written as a sitting person with long hair down the back – which resembles a ‘tail’.  Therefore, 話尾 (hua-wei) refers to the essence of the thought being lost, when this happens, all that is left is its inconsequential ‘tail’. 

Master Xu Yun explains that above the doorway of every Ch’an meditation hall are written the words ‘照顧話頭!’ – or ‘Zhao gu hua-tou’![10]

In pinyin ‘照’ (Zhao4) is written as a fire that spreads light.  It carries the meaning of ‘to look at’ with ‘care and attention’.  ‘顧’ (Gu4) refers to ‘gazing’ or ‘looking’ at something and is written to represent a human head.  Therefore the Chinese term Zhao gu – in this context refers to the act of turning the mind’s eye inward and in the process shedding light on the workings of the mind. 

Through holding the hua tou, and caring for it appropriately, the light of wisdom (prajna) will appear, and the Mind Ground will be fully realised without error or hindrance, here and now.  Although the Chinese term ‘hua tou’ (word head) seems esoteric due to the word structure used in translation, it is really quite a practical technique.  This technique integrates both vipassana and samatha into one concentrated technique – in this regard it does not go beyond the Buddha’s teachings upon meditation.  Of course, in its assessment many forget the corresponding notion of ‘hua wei’, or ‘word tail’.  The hua tou turns the mind (as a sense organ) back upon itself so that with repeated enquiry, the mind’s essence is realised.  All the sense organs, regardless of their distinctive sensory function, emerge from exactly the same ‘empty’ (sunya) base, and therefore the return of one sense to its base is the automatic return of all senses to the original base.  It is the deep questioning of the word ‘Who?’ that is the most important factor – Who is hearing?, Who is writing?, Who is dragging this body around?, etc.  It is the enquiry that is the hua tou, rather than the content of its structure.  Whatever hua tou is used, the focusing of the mind upon the question brings the thoughts into one single stream, from their previously scattered condition.  Then all the thoughts, as they emerge from the empty base – regardless of their nature and content become immediately transformed and channelled into the hua tou.  Therefore it is true to say that good, neutral and bad thoughts are immediately incorporated into the spiritual struggle without exception or exclusion.  In this state the mind experiences a sense of ‘oneness’, or ‘togetherness’, as opposed to its usual disparate and scattered nature.  This is the beginning level. Further dedicated enquiry continues to gather and transform emerging thought regardless of its nature until the ‘gap’ between each thought is clearly perceived.  This ‘gap’ manifests as a type of void – albeit relative, and two dimensional.  This void can be entered and left at will during meditation practice – but it is only the head that is empty, as all the thoughts and thought streams have ceased due to the perception of the ‘gap’ between the thoughts.  It is a marvellous time of mental peace and quietitude and although ranking the immutable is impossible, this stage may be described as ‘intermediate’.  A further period of training is required.  The Ch’an teacher assists this process by engaging the intellect of the student so that it is continuously stimulated in away that returns it to its essence.  The student assists this process through the self-study of hua tou.  Following the thoughts, instead of returning them to their empty base is called ‘hua wei’.  It is a human habit that is very difficult to prevent – human beings literally become ‘lost’ in thought whilst trying to get to grips with the facility of ‘thinking’ itself.  The gong-an is a method of interaction designed to reveal the empty essence of the intellect to itself in an instantaneous manner.  If the intellect engages the gong-an, the gong-an is seen as illogical and pointless.  In the old days the Ch’an masters were brutally compassionate and when gongan did not work they developed the hua tou practice.  The gong-an and hua tou methods merge all the Buddha’s teachings on meditation together into one succinct technique that any one can practice regardless of expedient karmic circumstance.  This is how Charles Luk (1898-1978) explains the hua tou practice:

‘When men were attached to material things, people of high spirituality became rare. The masters were then obliged to devise a poison-against-poison method called the hua t’ou which consists of the giving rise to a feeling of doubt (yi-qing – ‘doubting mind’) about WHO the seeker of Enlightenment is. Emphasis is on the word WHO which supports this vital doubt which comes from the student’s eagerness to know that which practices the Dharma. He knows that his body and intellect will cease to exist when he dies and are, therefore, transient and cannot realise permanent reality. He is keen to know about the prime mover of all his activities; hence his doubt which, growing larger and larger, will submerge his body, mind and environment to form a mass of fire which destroys all thoughts, feelings and passions like a re-hot stove which melts the snow that falls on it, as the masters put it. His monkey mind cannot stay in this scorching fire, and its death is automatically followed by the resurrection of his true mind which is pure and clean. This yi-qing should be maintained throughout the training until Bodhi is achieved.

After the student has wiped out all dualities in their coarse aspects, he will reach the state of bright stillness which still implies awareness of it, that is a duality of subjective ego and objective dhyana in its subtlety. They are ego and Dharma in their finest aspects mentioned in the sutras as the last hindrance on the holy path.

It is much easier to relinquish the subtle ego than the subtle Dharma which is wonderful and attractive, and can be easily mistaken for Nirvana. Hence master Han Shan says: “This is the most dangerous pass which I have myself experienced.” If the student persists in holding on to this feeling of doubt, this subtle Dharma which is but an illusion will vanish, and thus released from the last hindrance, he will leap over both phenomenon and noumenon to reach that state of Samadhi in which the ‘yi-qing’ (doubting mind) itself is sublimated and transformed into the Buddha’s all-knowledge (sarvajna). This is the Tathagata stage.

This feeling of doubt, which the masters likened to an indestructible sword, cuts down all thoughts and mental states during the training. Hence Lin Chi says: “If you meet a Buddha, cut him down; if you meet a Patriarch, cut him down; if you meet your relatives, cut them down. Only then will you be liberated, and if you are not held by externals, you will be disengaged and comfortably independent. For all visions conceived by the sense organs are unreal and can never compare to the inconceivable and inexpressible Bhutatathata.’[11]

It is clear that the hua tou technique was not part of the original Ch’an method – which exists beyond words and phrases.  Indeed, the first sutra associated with the Ch’an School in its early history is not the Surangama Sutra, but rather the Lankavatara Sutra, the influence of which waned as the literature associated with the sunyata (emptiness) thinking of the Prajnaparamitra Sutra became popular.   At the time of the Song Dynasty, Dahui’s practice, therefore, was not any thing new, but rather a distinctive use of what already existed within the Ch’an School inChina.  He expertly ‘turned the mind’ of those who he instructed, through the expert use of the written and spoken word.  Dahui, like Xu Yun, both commented upon the dead recitation of a gong-an, with no penetrative ability to reveal the Mind Ground, as opposed to the living use of the hua tou method, which when practiced correctly, keeps an intense penetration into the mind-essence until the Mind Ground is fully revealed.  The Ming Dynasty Ch’an master – Han Shan De-qing – used the hua tou method in the most efficient of manners – directly referring to the Surangama Sutra for guidance.  In his autobiography, master Han Shan describes one of his experiences:

‘All the mountains were covered with snow and ice, and the scenery was just like the vision which I had had previously and which I had loved so much.  My body and mind were taken by surprise as if I were entering the Paradise of Bliss.  Soon after this Miao Feng left to visit Yeh Tai, and I was left alone to live in the place.  I concentrated my attention on a single thought, and, if a visitor came, I did not speak but only looked at him.  After a long while, when a visitor came, he resembled a tree stump.  This state of mind continued until I had no idea about the meaning of a single (Chinese) character.  At first a roaring gale blew frequently and when the thaw set in torrents of water rolled down the mountains and made a thunderous noise.  In the stillness it was like that of a thousand marching troops and ten thousand horses galloping at full speed; it was very disturbing.  Miao Feng had said: “This surrounding is created by the mind and does not come from the outside.”  The ancients said: “Whoever hears the sound of water without using the sixth consciousness for thirty years, will achieve Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara’s all-pervading wisdom.”  Consequently I went to a wooden bridge where I sat every day.  At first the noise from the water was audible as before.  After a long while it could only be heard when thoughts surged in my mind and not when they ceased to rise.  Suddenly one day while sitting on the bridge as usual, I felt as if my body did not exist and the sound of the water was not heard any more.  Henceforth, all the sound and noise vanished completely; I was no longer disturbed by them.’[12] 

The question of ‘who?’ is the essence of the hua tou practice, for it guides the attention of the mind away from diverse and misleading phenomena, and firmly back toward the essence of the mind itself.  Of course, the questioning word ‘who?’ is a deliberate construct of the thinking mind.  The word ‘who?’ becomes indicative of all words reduced to its structure – ‘W-H-O?’ – is the mind’s capacity for endless thinking and contrivance focused into a single word.  The mind must first of all establish this singleness of thought through a single word – through hour upon hour of meditative practice.  All words must cease except for the ‘who?’, as the developed power of concentration literally ‘pulls’ all attempts to think otherwise into its singular structure.  This is the establishment of ‘singleness of thought’.  Within the hua tou method, this is the achievement of ‘hua’.  What gives the hua tou method its poignancy and strength is its ability to create the inner conditions whereby the ‘essence’, or ‘originator space’ of the word ‘who?’ is realised through its inherent, questioning power.  The word ‘who?’ is created out of the mind’s psychic fabric through an act of concentrated ‘will’.  Its structure is formed from ‘nothingness’, and it is this empty state that the ‘tou’ aspect of the hua tou method seeks to realise.  Through the development of concentration, insight is attained.  The mind, in its deluded state, only perceives the outer, and fully formed aspect of each thought construct, as they collectively cascade across the surface of the mind’s eye.  This cascading process contains an independent energy that is not directly influenced by the mind’s eye itself.  In other words, a deluded being can only helplessly watch the continuous inner dialogue, with no ability to profoundly alter its structure or course.  The hua tou method allows the practitioner to take a direct control of the inner process itself, and bring a form of effective discipline to bear upon it.  The endless stream of thoughts are channelled into just one stream – the question ‘who?’ – and this single stream, through an intense inner concentration is returned to its empty essence.  In this regard, a hua tou may be distinguished from a gong-an by the fact that a gong-an does not necessarily have to be comprised of a question, but can be a dialogue or statement about any subject, through which the context of its utterance changes those who encounter it.  A hua tou, by way of comparison, in its most developed sense, must always comprise of a question.  Although both techniques perform exactly the same function of revealing the Mind Ground, a hua tou can be defined as a gong-an that is asking a specific question that can not be answered by the ordinary intellect.  In a very real sense, a discussion of the history of the hua tou is allowing the ordinary mind to have a free reign in its dealings with the world, and serves as an existential contradiction to the use of the hua tou method as used by the Ch’an school, which serves to wipe out all discrimination in a single leap beyond the ‘ordinary’ and into ‘reality’.  What the old Ch’an master would refer to as ‘putting a head, upon a head’.  Understanding a physical history of the hua tou, although useful in an expedient manner, actually serves to obscure the very Mind Ground the hua tou method is designed to reveal.  The history of the hua tou is of no use to one engaged in a serious inner quest to realise the true essence of the mind itself.   This is why the Ch’an masters always advised the ‘laying down’ of the kind of clutter in the mind, such as the history of the hua tou, which is, after-all, more a matter of speculation rather than concrete fact.  Intellection about the hua tou contradicts the hua tou method itself, and replaces a sound spiritual technique with a pseudo-intellectualism that mimics the logical trend of mainstream academia.  Such a trend reduces the hua tou to a mere category to be filed away under the heading of ‘solved’.  However, the true point of the hua tou is that it can never be solved by the intellect itself, but can only be used in the process of the transcendence of the intellect.  The intellect that understands the hua tou must ultimately ‘die’ in the spiritual sense, so that a new understanding based upon wisdom can emerge out of the developmental process.  The modern influence of the materialist paradigm reduces the spiritual to the realm of matter, where it can be measured and quantified.  This is the dismantling of Ch’an Buddhism from within, and its destructive influence should be noted by those who believe that a spiritual method should be maintained in a format that allows it to be used effectively in creating better human beings, through the realisation of enlightenment itself.  A hua tou that can be measured and understood by the ordinary mind, is a hua tou that is spiritually useless.  Intellectual understanding should not replace spiritual transcendence.

Whereas the Surangama Sutra turns the attention inward, and follows the hearing of sound back to its original essence, the developed Chinese method of the use of hua tou aids the ‘inward looking’ by adding the introspective power of the enquiring ‘who?’ to its functioning.  Although it is possible for beings with good spiritual karma to follow sound back to its essence, generally speaking ordinary beings find this practice difficult.  This is why the Surangama method was modified into the hua tou.  The hua tou assists the mind to turn inward and away from external stimuli.  When simply ‘looking’ at sound as it arises, the clutter of the mind can get in the way of the observational process.  The hua tou remedies this situation by gathering-up all the clutter into one singe, questioning word – ‘who?’  Beings of high spirituality have little or no mind clutter and are therefore able to penetrate straight through to the Mind Ground by following the sound back to its empty root, using only the Surangama method.  However, the method itself, be it the hua tou, or the Surangama, is not the achievement and should not be confused with it.  The enlightened Ch’an masters often spoke against resting in the extreme of ‘attainment’, or ‘non-attainment’.  Peter Hershock explains:

‘Huineng urged his monastic and lay students to take the “precepts of formlessness” and to practice the “formless repentance,” insisting that Chan did not have to do with any particular bodily posture or mental state but with having a complete confidence in one’s own true nature and demonstrating one’s capacity for conduct without precedent.  Linji himself admitted that his approach to Chan left many people clucking their tongues and thinking him a simpleton or a fool.  Apparently, the distinctive character of Chan practice does not rest on any norms or standards of bodily comportment.

But neither does it rest on the achievement of some “internal” state of affairs, the attainment of particular, subjective experienced altered states and supernatural powers, or the realisation of intellectual or rhetorical brilliance.  Mazu is adamant that “talk about attainment is your mind.  Talk about nonattainment is still your mind.  Even if you were to get as far as splitting the body, emanating light, and manifesting the eighteen subtle transformation…[or] if you were able to talk about the Buddha’s expedient teachings for as many eons as there are grains of sand in a river, you’ll  still never complete your explanation or get anywhere.  All these are just like not-yet-severed barbs and chains.”  For Mazu, and for Chan generally, entering into meditative absorption or stillness and demonstrating scholarly brilliance are equally classed as overdoing it.’[13]        

Master Xu Yun explained that correct knowledge of the ‘Way’ (Dao) is required for access to the Ch’an path.  However, once the gate of Ch’an has been successfully entered, any and all excess baggage must be abandoned completely, and this includes any attempt to define the path itself into materially concrete terms.  Even the great Ch’an master Dahui agreed with this possession when he wrote to Huang Po-ch’eng:

‘In the daily activities of a student of the Path, to empty objects is easy, but to empty mind is hard.  If objects are empty but mind is not empty, mind will be overcome by objects.  Just empty the mind, and objects will be empty of themselves.  If the mind is already emptied, but then you arouse a second thought, wishing to empty its objects, this means that this mind is not yet empty, and is again carried away by objects.  If this sickness is not done away with, there is no way to get out of birth and death.  Haven’t you seen the verse which Layman Pang presented to Ma Tsu?

 “In the ten directions, the same congregation:

Each and every one studies non-doing.

This is the place where Buddhas are chosen:

Minds empty, they return successful.”

Once the mind is empty, then what is there outside of mind that can be emptied?  Think it over.’[14]                    

[1] Luk, Charles. The Surangama Sutra (Leng Yen Ching) (2001) Munishram Manoharlal – the Title page reads; ‘Chinese Rendering by Master Paramiti of Central North India at Chih Chih Monastery,AD 705.’

[2] Luk, Charles. The Secrets of Chinese Meditation (1984) Weiser – Pages 32-42 – which quotes the Surangama Sutra.   SSee also:

Luk, Charles.  The Surangama Sutra (Leng Yen Ching) – Pages 135-142 – for Avalokitesvara’s full explanation of this method.

[3] Cleary, JC.  Swampland Flowers: The Letters and Lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui (1977) Shambhala.

[4] Schlutter,Morten. How Zen Became Zen, (2009) Munishram Manoharlol – Page 107.

[5] Schlutter,Morten. How Zen Became Zen, (2009) Munishram Manoharlol. – 215.

[6] Cleary, JC.  Swampland Flowers: The Letters and Lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui (1977) Shambhala – Pages 84-85.  When reading through the letters in this collection, none appear to provide instruction that resemble the developed hua tou, even though Dahui is obviously enlightened and correctly turning the mind’s of others back upon the empty essence.  Dahui’s brilliance is not limited to the expedient of the hua tou technique.

[7] Lachs, Stuart.  Hua-t’ou: A Method of Zen Meditation – Accessed 11.4.2012 – The opening paragraph reads:  ‘This paper discusses a form of meditation practice known in Chinese as hua- t’ou. It was popularized by the Chinese Zen master Ta-Hui (1089 – 1163) a member of the Lin-Chi sect of Zen. While Ta-Hui did not invent this method of meditation, he popularized it in that he was the first to teach a theory of why hua`t’ou should be practiced, and also taught how to use it in Zen practice.’

[8] Luk, Charles. ‘Empty Cloud The Autobiography of a Chinese Zen Master’ (1988) Element – Page 158.

[9]公案(gong-an): 公 (gong1) is written as an open mouth that shares speech in a public setting and in this context is used to mean ‘public’.  案 (an4)  refers to the presentation of a legal document or record, upon a long table, in this context it carries the meaning of ‘record’.   Therefore, 公案 (gong-an) refers to a ‘public record’, or recorded dialogue between master and student within the Ch’an tradition.

[10] Luk, Charles. ‘Empty Cloud The Autobiography of a Chinese Zen Master’ (1988) Element  – Page 158.

[11] Luk, Charles, ‘Practical Buddhism’ (1988) Rider & Co – pages 22-24. For sake of clarity, I have substituted the Wades-Giles ‘i-ch’ing’ for the modern pinyin of ‘yi-qing’, so as to differentiate between the concept expressed here of a ‘doubting mind’, and the well known Book of Changes, otherwise known as the I Ching [Yijing], etc. Readers should be aware that although Luk talks of a ‘feeling of doubt’ (yi-qing), in the Chinese texts the expression is usually ‘da-yi-qing’ (大疑情), or ‘great doubting mind’). Shi Da Dao – author.

[12] Luk, Charles.  Practical Buddhism (1988), Rider & Co Ltd – Pages 80-81.

[13] Hershock, Peter.  Chan Buddhism, (2004)Hawai’i Press – Pages 133-134.

[14] Cleary, JC.  Swampland Flowers: The Letters and Lectures of Zen Master Ta Hui (1977) Shambhala – Pages 31-32.

The Implications of Ch’an Meditation

In early Buddhism a real world lacks an underlying, permanent substance, in latter Buddhism the very same world is viewed as ‘empty’, not only of ‘self’, but any ‘thing’ or ‘substance’ that could be interpreted as independently ‘real’.  In early Buddhism the world is real but forever changing, whilst in later Buddhism the physical world is as much an illusion, as the idea of a permanent self inhabiting it.  The ‘form’ is ‘void’, and the ‘void’ is ‘form’.  Everything that appears before the senses, and of course the senses themselves, are mistakenly interpreted as real and solid in the unenlightened state – this is the essence of logical materialism.  The Buddha teaches that the materialist view is an error, and that despite the apparent solidity of matter, it is in fact completely empty of any solid aspect whatsoever.  This can not be seen if the mind views the world as separate from itself.  In the dualistic state everything is separated into the dichotomy of the ‘subject’ and the ‘object’.  This creates the illusion of a separate, permanent self that stands in juxtaposition to the apparently real external world that surrounds it. However, through the act of effective meditation, the delusive experience is seen thoroughly through.  The perception of emptiness sweeps through the illusion of a one-sided solidity and dissolves the duality that it is based upon.  The perception of emptiness in relation to the sensing of a solid external world, in the first instance is such a relief for the aspirant that it is firmly grasped as an antidote to the sickness of material reality.  This kind of emptiness, although signifying a substantial step forward on the spiritual path, is nevertheless the next hurdle to over-come.  The grasping of this kind of emptiness becomes nihilistic in the sense that it ‘wipes out’ physical matter completely.  Buddhist masters often describe this state as a ‘dead’ mind, or the ‘unrecorded’ state, and within Buddhist meditation it must be transcended.  The grasping of a hard earned emptiness is understandable as its realisation has entwined within it a great sense of peace and tranquillity, as the aspirant is no longer bound by the tyranny of physical matter.  This oasis is not the final objective and the aspirant at this point faces a stark choice; leave the world completely beyond and remain in a peaceful place and retain this state, or go back into the world and be over-come with sensory stimulation that subsumes this incomplete state.  In the Ch’an School such a predicament is some times referred to as ‘sitting on top of a hundred foot pole’.  For this predicament to transform into a new situation the aspirant must let go of this realisation and move onward with the spiritual development.  Emptiness must not be one-sided – it must be all embracing and at exactly the same time, contain all things.  The next stage is to realise the inter-penetration of emptiness with the physical world so that all appears to arise within, and pass away from, a perfect, reflective all embracing and compassionate emptiness (sunyata).  With the attainment of this state is the realisation that the existence of matter is not solid, and that emptiness is not actually ‘void’ of physical impressions.  Matter is not solid and emptiness is not empty.  This stage is arrived at through a peculiar logic (prajna) that appears to be saying that matter is not full, and that one-sided and incomplete emptiness has to be emptied of its ‘empty’ one-sided content, before the reality of form is void, and void is form becomes clearly apparent.  The appearance of existence is an interwoven state of emptiness and form that is actually beyond its constituent parts – existence is beyond all duality, including form and void, but it is through the understanding and realisation of ‘form’ and ‘void’ that the enlightened state is realised.  Language is not sufficient to explain exactly what the enlightened state is actually like, but can only hint at its reality by describing what enlightened reality actually is not.  Enlightenment is not ‘form’, as form is ‘suffering’, the Buddha teaches that realising the state of ‘emptiness’ is definitely upon the right path, but that a one-sided state of emptiness is not complete enlightenment, and yet both ‘form’ and ‘void’ do form vital aspects of the world view from that of the perspective of the enlightened mind.  Form – or physical matter is both ‘empty’ and ‘full’ at the same time.  Emptiness is both ‘empty’ and ‘full’ at the same time, and there is no difference between the two states of ‘form’ and ‘void’, as that would imply a duality which is not present in the enlightened view.  The physical world seems real, but it is not.  A certain spiritual state perceives the world as empty, but it is not.  The enlightened view is an all embracing integration of these two states, so that the states themselves dissolve into the all embracing view.  Emptiness is used as an antidote to the excesses of materialism.  As matter is not real, it is ‘empty’ in relation to the belief that it is ’full’.  However, although matter may well be ‘empty’ of solidity, the state of true ‘emptiness’ itself includes all ‘matter’ without exception.  Therefore the Buddha taught that form is void, and void is form.  The mind is reflective of all things, and all the things reflected are empty of a permanent substance and a separate self.

Some times an illusion is used to over-come an illusion and the result is the realisation of reality.  In this regard, any expedient can be utilised to move toward the ‘real’.  Skilful means are a method to untie the many knots of delusion that bind the mind to the cycle of samsara.  The essence of the samsara, however, is nirvana, which means that the illusional world simply has to be penetrated by insight for it to be transformed into nirvana.  The Ch’an method gathers the forces of the mind into one place and then guides these forces as it drills through the many layers of delusion in the mind, built-up over life-times.  The resultant clarity of thought accumulates as ‘prajna’, or a special kind of spiritual insight.  The aspirant sees clearly into the psychic fabric of the mind, and in so doing sees into the reality of existence itself.  On occasion, the mind can be ‘turned’ at its deepest essence in an instant by a word or deed from an enlightened teacher, but often these occurrences are the product of a long and profound period of intense meditation over many years.  The process of drilling into the psychic fabric of the mind weakens the delusion layers themselves and so renders the mind susceptible to experiencing a ‘turning around’ by external stimuli.  The Ch’an master senses the right moment and tips the transformative process over the edge – and nothing is ever the same again.  This requires a sustained turning within so that the mind can be straightened-out.  Without this effort the delusional process stays very much intact.  Thinking about transcending the mind never accomplishes the act itself – as a thinking mind can not envisage that which lies beyond its deluded state.  The pull of the external world prevents the psychic powers (qi) of the mind from being gathered together and focused inwardly, rather than the usual scattering of this energy toward innumerable outer objects of attraction.  There must be a conscious disengagement from the external stimuli that soak-up vital psychic force (qi) away from the contemplation of the inner terrain.  Watching others practice Ch’an, or reading the dead words of those who have come before achieves nothing for the realising of the Mind Ground, if a concerted meditation method is not engaged in.  In this respect the outer world, with its never-ending supply of external attractions is designed to prevent the very activity that is required to ‘see through it’.  The illusion of duality can not be transcended if the processes required to transcend it are never allowed to come into operation.  As it is a certain limitation of physical existence that a person can not exist with out a body, the disengagement of the mind from externals is not the end of sensation itself.  As long as the body is functioning there will be sensations that appear to be originating either within the body itself, or from sources external to it.  When the mind’s attention is drawn away from attachment to these sensations, the energy of the mind is no longer scattered.  The mind begins to treat the sensations themselves with a certain indifference, and this allows for the psychic energies to be re-deployed to assist the spiritual process.  Non-attachment to externals is in fact the practice of attention diversion, as the mind’s awareness is literally disengaged from one mode of observation and trained to perform another.  The gaze is moved from the mindless consideration of externals toward the mindful consideration of its own inner terrain.  This is the establishment of the Ch’an meditative method.  This is often associated with ‘sila’, or ‘moral discipline’, which is a method for gathering the strength to initiate the process.  The relationship with external stimuli must be transformed just prior to the diversion of the mind’s attention away.  Taking vows and making dedications prepares the mind and body for a major shift in understanding.  Moral discipline is the act of preparing the body and environment for the re-defining of how the mind will interact (with them) from now on.  Moral discipline gathers the qi in the externality of the individual so that it may be conveyed to the inside of the mind so that it can be used on the inner journey.  The ‘morality’ of the situation should not be read exclusively to mean that that one physical action is better than another, (although of course, this is the case), but rather that it is ‘morally’ right to turn the mind inward, and with a powerful vigour to find enlightenment.  Changing outer behavioural modes is beneficial to the individual and to society, and should be encouraged as normal, but in and of its own, behavioural modification does not create the inner circumstance to ‘breakthrough’ in the mind, which is only achieved through a strong meditation.  However, a peaceful, positive and wise existence on the outer plain helps to create the conditions that allows for the inner journey to take place in the first place, and this type of life-style should be encouraged as being beneficial to humanity – the teachings for this kind of existence are found within Buddhism, Daoism and the original works attributed to the great sage Confucius.

The enlightened view is a radical departure from that of the ordinary mind.  On the other hand, it may be described as the same, but different – as paradox reconciles into a common middle, a middle ground, however, that appears forever contradictory to a mind that has not realised its essence.  The deluded mind creates the duality of ‘enlightened’ and ‘unenlightened’, and sets the explanatory nature of the spiritual search.  Primarily, many spiritual paths explain enlightenment from the perspective of the deluded mind as it is slowly led toward a transformative experience.  The process of training toward this goal is an exercise in delusion control whereby the klesa inherent within the mind are gently engaged, transcended and finally discarded as the mind adopts a position beyond their limitations.  Once beyond the limitations of klesa, the mind settles into a new state that appears to have existed for all time, as the delusion of the past is wiped-out in a second.  Practitioners on the Ch’an path, however, although experiencing ‘levels’ of attainment, nevertheless are also instructed to ruthlessly cut-down every single state of mind that manifests, until the pure and pristine Mind Ground manifests.  Even temporary understandings – such as those which attempt to explain ‘emptiness’ and ‘form’, must be swept aside, and nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of the complete and total immersion within the Mind Ground itself.  Therefore Ch’an practice takes the goal of complete enlightenment as its starting point because there is not a single thing in the universe that does not have it as its base and function.  The ordinary, deluded state appears to lack it, but this is because it has not been realised as present.  The immediate presence of the Mind Ground is the basis of the Ch’an path – it is the essence of Buddhism, without recourse to the thousands of words that define ‘Buddhism’.  The sutras lead the aspirant toward enlightenment at their own pace, whilst Ch’an, in its more direct method demands that the obvious is realised here and now, and its nature not endlessly talked around.  The Ch’an masters use the language of the ‘uncreate’.  This is the use of ordinary conditioned human language, in a manner that does not allow for the usual conditioning to operate, and thus deprives the intellectual mind of the fuel needed to create more delusive thought.  This language manifests the ‘real’ in a non-dualistic and absolute manner and can not be understood with a mere shallow cleverness.  Its impact is often decisive and is designed to take the practitioner through the three gates of entry into nirvana; namely ‘voidness’, ‘formlessness’, and ‘inactivity’.  Voidness empties the mind of the idea of self and others; formlessness wipes out the notion of externals, and inactivity puts a stop to all worldly activities, whilst appearing in the world – in numerous and diverse circumstances – to act as a bodhisattva and deliver all living beings from suffering.  Inactivity is the state of the non-creation of deluded, worldly states of mind and body and is the quality of a ‘stilled’ mind in meditation.  Beyond this state, the aspirant may appear to act within the world of red dust (i.e. ‘everyday existence’) for the betterment of innumerable beings.  The Ch’an method does not stay or settle at even profound levels of attainment, and the aspirant must push on.  The sutras describe the ten fearless powers (Dasabala) of an enlightened being as knowing:

1)     What is right and wrong in every condition.

2)     The karma of every being, past, present, and future.

3)     All stages of liberation through dhyana and Samadhi.

4)     The good and evil (karmic) roots of all beings.

5)     The knowledge and understanding of every being.

6)     The actual conditions of every being.

7)     The direction and consequence of all laws.

8)     All the causes of mortality and of good and evil in their reality.

9)     The former lives of all beings and the stage of nirvana.

10)   The destruction of all delusion of every kind.

An enlightened being also possesses the six supernatural powers (sadabhijna), which are:

1)     Divine sight.

2)     Divine hearing.

3)     Knowledge of the minds of all beings.

4)     Knowledge of all forms of previous existences of self and others.

5)     Power to appear in any place and have absolute freedom.

6)     Insight into the ending of the streams of birth and death.

Through the realisation of the state of profound inactivity (that is not limited to its own definitional boundaries), these states naturally arise.  It is not an effort of intellect that achieves these states, and these states are not created out of a logical construction.  The existence of these states is ethereal and not dependent upon the ego in any way.  These states naturally manifest when course delusion is transcended, but the Mind Ground that the Ch’an methods seeks lies even beyond these extraordinary achievements.  The pitfalls are many and these states should not serve as the basis for meditation.  Unusual abilities of both mind and body are a consequence of a deep and profound inner journey, and never the focus of the journey itself.  All must be left behind – even the notions of divine powers.  The ego will try to prevent its own transcendence by taking-on the pretence of spirituality and mimicking these divine powers – catching many beings in a trap that ultimately makes matters spiritually worse, rather than better.  The deluded spiritual teacher wraps many innocent beings into his false understanding; this is why the Ch’an method demands an absolute honesty that pushes the practitioner on toward true understanding and realisation.  In the records of Ch’an masters – even a monk who had died – and then re-animated his dead body – had not achieved the final position.  This demonstrates that some times, when some progress has been made on the spiritual path, the consequential fruits can hinder further progress and become a gold chain that blocks development.  The Buddha himself cut through the haze of delusion in two ways; one way involved the meticulous explanation of Dhamma – expressing the same wisdom from many different perspectives. Including the use of chanting to break through – and secondly the direct approach that allows for no distinction whatsoever.  This is why the Buddha’s pathway is very diverse.  It can be entered from many different life-circumstances, but despite which dharani door is used, the Mind Ground that is realised is exactly the same.

How To Practice Ch’an Meditation

Ch’an practice attracts shallow and deep interest in the world.  The world is a reflection of the mind and the Ch’an method is nothing other than the instant and profound realisation of this fact.  There is nothing else to it.  The mind realises its own essence and in so doing no longer perceives itself and the outer world as two separate and unconnected realities.  Such a realisation has profound philosophical implications, but these implications must not cloud the ordinary mind with excessive intellectual concerns.  These implications are understood with a natural ease free of effort.  Effort is only required by the unrealised mind striving to understand some thing that lies beyond its reach.  This is why the Ch’an masters of old advised their students to ‘lay it all down’ and ‘have no concern for the world’.  It is true that examples abound in the Ch’an literature of people becoming enlightened through a word, a phrase or an act, usually delivered by a master at the appropriate moment, but much of this activity is the product of a long and sustained meditative practice where through hours of meditation the practitioner has previously built-up the inner potential so that at the right moment a break through can occur.  This break through may happen whilst sitting in meditation, or it may occur in ordinary life moments that happen between meditation sessions.  Whatever the case, a break through in the mind can not happen if the ordinary mind is not brought firmly under control.  The ordinary (ignorant) flow of mind that goes about its everyday existence merely perpetuates itself without end, and does not possess an ability to calm itself and put an end to suffering.  This type of ordinary mind merely follows a cycle of suffering from which it can not escape.  Therefore it is essential that part of the day is used to reign in the mind so that it does not do what it wants, when it wants to do it.  The mind is use to doing what it wants ever since it occupied a baby’s body – the habit is difficult to break, but broken it must be.  The Ch’an method does not engage the ordinary conscious flow of the mind, as that would be piling an illusion upon an illusion – instead the Ch’an method seeks the empty Mind Ground by directly looking for it with no hesitation whatsoever.  The human mind, the body it occupies, and the world it inhabits, are all products of the ordinary, unenlightened state of mind and should be given no attention at all.  The mind must be disengaged from the attachment to the ordinary mind, the body and the environment.  The Ch’an practitioner must turn the gaze firmly within, away from externals toward the empty Mind Ground so that its essence can be fully realised and integrated with, thus eradicating the illusion of duality and attaining the realisation that all things exist within a great and profound, all-embracing emptiness.

This task is not easy.  The ego mind will attempt to throw-up all kinds of illusions to protect its privileged status of control over an individual’s destiny.  Perhaps the greatest danger is the egotistical belief that enlightenment has been attained when in fact all that has happened is that the mind, after some initial, shallow training has merely experienced a temporary sense of ‘calmness’, and afterwards assumed the dishonest position that involves the stench of false knowing.  Beings stuck in such a trap either attack and vilify the spiritual path, or presume to lead others into their false achievement.  This is the ego in its last ditch attempt to save itself from being transcended, and it is often a very powerful last card to play, as those who give-up at this point have wasted their entire spiritual practice throughout their life time.  The ego only needs weakness and arrogance to succeed.  The Ch’an method should be used in a strong and confident manner – indifferent Ch’an (weak meditation) is of no use and is a waste of time.  A Ch’an practitioner is nothing less than a spiritual warrior who draws a line in the sand, and sets-up a firm intention to transcend the ego ‘here and now’.  Seated meditation is an essential practice that can be performed any where – it does not require special clothing around the body, or a particular environment for the body to be in – these concerns are entirely superfluous to the realisation of the Mind Ground.  A seated physical posture must be chosen that can be held ‘still’ for around either 25 minutes, or 45 minutes at one time.  The dedicated intention should be that both time and space must be transcended, and that in the human body, the illusion of time and space manifests as boredom and agitation in the mind, and all kinds of aches and pains within the body.  The practitioner should set the mind firmly upon its own essence and pay no heed to the ego, body or environment whilst in the act of meditation practice.  Over-time, this spiritual sense of detachment spreads from existing only during periods of meditation, and continues in all aspects of life, both day and night.  This divine indifference pushes firmly into the fabric of the mind itself and facilitates the effectiveness of the meditative method.  There should be no compromise with the ego and the sentimental weaknesses it upholds and supports.  The body must sit upon the floor in a straight and true manner, either with or without a meditation cushion.  A true practitioner needs no cushion as the broad and wide earth serves as the meditation platform.  The legs should be arranged in a folded manner – usually with the right leg lying across the top of the left leg which lies upon the ground.  The spine should be placed so that the shoulder girdle and the pelvic girdle are aligned.  This means that the shoulder girdle sits centred over the pelvic girdle, thus allowing the spine to take its natural anatomical position – although allowing for its curvature – the shoulders do not slump.  The head sits squarely upon the shoulders, with the neck gently extended by placing the chin slightly forward and down.  The muscles of the mouth, jaw and face should be relaxed, whilst the eyes are gently closed.  The left hand lies on top of the right hand in the lap, with the tips of each thumb touching.  This posture allows for the vital energy (qi) to flow without hindrance, so that the body, whilst ordered in such a fashion, might be completely forgotten as the mind’s attention is directed firmly within.  Breathing is deep, with each breath entering through the nose and leaving through the nose.  There are many variants of this posture, but a practitioner should choose one and persevere with it – long hours of seated meditation are arduous regardless of the chosen posture.  Posture and hand position rely upon the particular lineage concerned – the above description is the instruction given to Charles Luk by master Xu Yun, and it is the posture and position pursued by this lineage.  Each different lineage pursues the same goal in slightly different ways – the postures and positions should not be used as a matter of choice – as if the practitioner were buying products in a shop.  Rather, the purpose of each distinct lineage is to preserve a method that works, so that practitioners can enter the path with a minimum of fuss.  Different methods existing in the mind constitute an egotistical excuse not to practice through indecision – simply sit and meditate like the Ch’an monks in the above picture.  Posture and position only serve to get the practitioner through the gate.  Once the gate has been entered, the meditative method itself is used to penetrate through to the essence of the Mind Ground.

Once the primacy of a firm conviction is understood, together with the necessity for a clear technique, individual circumstance can then be taken into consideration.  This means that although a powerful motivation must be both generated and utilised, what has been described above can be adjusted for those with a definite need.  This need must be of a truthful nature.  Needs should not be invented by the ego as a means to water-down the method designed to over-come it.  However, if a truthful need exists, the meditation posture and position of this lineage can be modified so as to allow the practitioner to enter the gate of Ch’an study.  Such circumstances may include illness or disability, as well as advanced age – bearing mind that Xu Yun sat in meditation up until his death in his 120th year.  Pregnant women, of course, must sit in a manner suitable to their condition and one that does not hinder the development of the young child.  In these and similar cases, a meditation cushion, or floor padding of some kind can used, as can any other aid to supporting the body during meditation.  If the body can not be held in an upright position – even in a chair – then meditation whilst lying down (at various angles) can be used, with the added necessity of being aware of the potential to fall asleep.  With regard to paralysis, for instance, the mind can engage in the Ch’an method, providing the body is set into a neutral position relevant to the physical needs of the practitioner.  Some attempt the noble act of passing away whilst in the upright position.  This is the product of a life time of dedicated meditation, and monks such Mi Guang (died in 2008 at the age of 97) managed to achieve this;

When his tomb was opened in 2011, his body was found to be uncorrupted and still sitting upright.  This follows the example of the 6th Patriarch Hui Neng (638-713), and master Han Shan (1546–1623), amongst others.  Some times illness can have a detrimental, weakening effect upon the body at the point of death, and external assistance is needed to order the body.  These examples serve to demonstrate the reality of a dedicated meditative practice.  On occasion walking meditation may be used to calm the mind and order the body before the practice of sustained seated meditation.  This very much depends upon preference and circumstance.  The mind must be thoroughly disengaged from extraneous concerns and firmly turned within without a break in concentration.  When this concentration is achieved every concern preceding its establishment becomes meaningless.  The environment and body are ordered so that the mind can ‘look within’.  It is the utilising of the right kind of ‘doubt’ that facilitates this process.  If the ordinary mind continues without interruption, then ‘looking within’ will be difficult.  Many continue this kind of existence with no sense of objectivity, they are unable to see themselves in the world, or how their presence affects others.  This is the ego that is content and safe in its home.  Its position and performance are not doubted for a single second – with one deluded moment leading effortlessly to the next deluded moment in a continuous chain.  When awareness of this situation develops, a great ‘spiritual doubt’ arises within the mind (dayiqing), that serves as the foundational motivation for the pursuance of a spiritual method.  Such a profound and certain ‘doubt’ draws the energies of the mind into a single point of concentration.  This kind of doubt is different from the ordinary kind which has the exact opposite effect of splitting the mind’s energies into chaotic and disparate aspects.  Ordinary doubt takes away the vital energy needed to pursue a spiritual path, whilst the ‘great doubting mind’ allows the practitioner to begin the method and enter the gate of initial practice.  This sense of profound doubt develops into a continuous inner investigation that does not diminish or give-up.  This great doubt in the mind is an important aspect of the Ch’an practice, but it must not be allowed to degenerate into the ordinary doubting of the meditative method itself.  This can happen if the practice is weak and the ego is allowed to re-assert itself.  The Ch’an practitioner requires certain outer realities to be present.  For instance, there must be the presence of the Ch’an method passed from the distant past to the immediate present through a lineage that has preserved its correct and accurate practice.  With its presence must be the knowledge and instruction itself, so that the practitioner can make use of it.  Conducive outer circumstances should be arranged, of one kind or another, so that meditation can be practiced.  This need not be elaborate or over-bearing, a rock or beneath a tree will do.  Once the method has been adequately learned, then the Ch’an practitioner must become self-sufficient and firmly look within.

Looking within is the crux of the matter, as it is the ‘point’ of the Ch’an method.  Once the outer requirements have been taken care of, the ego becomes the focus of attention.  At this time the ego will attempt to fight back in any way that it can.  It will create numerous flights of fancy once the eyes are closed.  Streams of thought carry-on for hours and no benefit can be gained from the Ch’an method.  At the beginning the concentration is weak, but it must be made strong through the practice.  To become strong, the energies of the mind must be gathered into a single-point of focus.  This point of focus, when turned within literally drills through the density of the chaotic, ordinary mind.  The gathering of thoughts can be developed by firmly focusing the mind upon the breathing mechanism.  The full inward and outward breath must be firmly followed in every moment, and an awareness of the ‘transition’ clearly understood and appreciated – the breath itself emerges and disappears out of and into this transition which is really the foundation of physical being.  The body and mind is energised by a breath that is clear and true.  Concentrating the mind upon the breath focuses it inward, toward its own inner essence.  This is the type of meditation taught by the Lord Buddha himself and is known as the Tathagata Ch’an.  It is very useful and effective and untold numbers of beings have realised enlightenment through its practice.  As time progressed, however, and as societies developed in their sophistication, the human senses became under the influence of ever greater distractions and attractions, dimming the inner potential and making it difficult for ordinary practitioners to break through the mind’s barrier of delusion.  The Ch’an school originated with the Buddha himself, but utilises a more direct path to the realisation of the Mind Ground.  As it does not rely upon sutras for its existence, but rather advocates the passing on of the enlightenment experience from mind to mind, and generation to generation, it is referred to as the Patriarch’s Ch’an.  The ‘Patriarch’ rather than just representing an actual living being who has attained enlightenment, actually symbolises the Mind Ground that underlies all things.  The ‘Patriarch’ is the essence of the mind itself.  In reality, the Mind Ground is always present, but humanity can not see it.  Therefore the Ch’an method removes the false barrier so that the all-embracing emptiness that contains all things becomes absolutely apparent.  It is often the case that reliance upon the concentration of the breath is not always powerful enough for the decisive break through, on its own.  In the old days, Ch’an monks would watch their breath for years on end, until they met an enlightened master who could finally enlighten them with a word or deed.  The meditation built the inner force (qi), and the master, understanding exactly the inner condition of the student, behaved in a precise manner that allow for this accumulated energy to burst through the layer of delusion in the mind and reveal the empty Mind Ground.  Preparatory meditation was an essential pre-requisite for this process to work.  The Chinese Ch’an master used words and actions in a specific and peculiar manner that has no egotistical purpose and can not be understood by the unenlightened intellect.  The behaviour was recorded by those who experienced or witnessed it.

Over hundreds of years the verbal aspect was distilled into collections of ‘gongan’, or ‘public cases’ and used in meditation as a means to focus the mind’s energy.  This is exactly the function that breath concentration serves, but the focusing of the mind upon an enlightened dialogue that has no egotistical base, allows the practitioner to share in the enlightening process between the master and student, despite being separated from the original event through time space.  As time and space are illusionary, an enlightened dialogue will perform its function just as efficiently a thousand years ago, as it does in the present moment – because it is all ‘present moment’.  This is how a word or phrase can ‘turn the mind’ at its essence and replace the ego with the empty Mind Ground.  Through these collected dialogues of the language of the uncreate, each practitioner in the present is immediately in the presence of the influence of the Ch’an masters of the past.  Following the gongan practice over the centuries it became apparent that the ‘enquiry’ into the dialogue itself was just as important as the content of the dialogue, and that this enquiry was essentially the question of ‘who?’  This ‘who?’ turns the seeker’s attention firmly back upon their own mind essence.  The mind essence lies just beneath the thought manifestations in the mind.  If the word ‘who?’ is understood as a focusing mind technique, then the word emerges out of the empty essence of the mind itself.  In other words, the word ‘who?’ as a thought construct emerges directly out of the Mind Ground itself.  In the unenlightened state, the emerging thoughts stream out of the mind’s essence – obscuring that essence as they emerge.  The ‘head’ of the word is its essence in the empty Mind Ground.  When the word ‘who?’ is concentrated upon, the mind is turned back firmly upon itself and its essence is fully realised.  This development of the gongan method is known as the ‘hua tou’ (word head) technique.  Word head means ‘word essence’ in transliteration.  Concentrating upon the breath, the gongan, or the hua tou all have exactly the same function – that is the turning of the mind back upon itself.  This practice takes will power and dedication.

A Ch’an practitioner may make use of any of these methods, but once a method is chosen it should be pursued to the very end.  Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) used the hua tou ‘who is carrying this body around?’  Master Han Shan (mentioned above), following the example of the Surangama Sutra practiced the hua tou ‘Who is hearing?’  Within the Surangama Sutra it is taught by Guan Yin Bodhisattva that the best practice for a human being is to turn back the faculty of hearing to its essence, i.e. the point where all sound is created, which is the essence of all things – the empty Mind Ground.  The hua tou method appears to have originated within that Mahayana sutra, and within the Ch’an school it is used as a development of the gongan method.  Ch’an practitioners can confidently follow the practice of master Han Shan and meditate upon the hua tou ‘who is hearing?’  What is important is that the Ch’an practice should be physically disciplined, and the mind suitably gathered into a single point of reference, so that concentrated effort can be turned firmly within, with an unceasing determination.


Scholar Cen Xue Lu (1882-1963) – Xu Yun’s Editor.

The name of ‘Cen Xue Lu’, although known in relation to Xu Yun, is nevertheless often treated as a peripheral concern within English translations of master Xu Yun’s autobiography.  Of course, within such translations the emphasis is always upon providing an accurate presentation of a Chinese text into another language – with precision of translation and clarity of meaning understandably taking precedence.  This is to say that with regards to the translation process, the new language takes precedence over the old, as ‘meaning’ is extracted from the source material.  Meaning, however, within the context of translation, if it is to be considered relevant to the source text, not only must reveal a meaning that is recognisable to that contained within the source text, but elaborate upon it so that an unfamiliar audience can gain ‘new’ knowledge as a result of reading the translation.  With regards to rendering specific Chinese philosophical concepts into European languages, the task is often formidable, although definitely not impossible.  Cen Xue Lu (1882-1963) did not translate master Xu Yun’s autobiography into English; his important task was further back in the chain of events.  Indeed, without Cen Xue Lu’s presence there might not have been an autobiography at all.   The great Ch’an master Xu Yun (1840-1959) would probably not be as well known as he is today, (some fifty years after his passing), if not for the scholarly work carried out on his behalf by Cen Xue Lu.  Indeed, it is Cen Xue Lu’s manuscript known (in Chinese) as ‘Xu Yun He Shang Nian Pu’, or in English ‘Empty Cloud Harmonious Honourable Yearly Record’, that Charles Luk (1898-1978) translated into English in the 1960’s, and which Richard Hunn (1949-2006) edited into a single edition in 1988.  The title of this work, which is arranged quite literally as a ‘yearly record’ (Nian Pu) transliterates as ‘The Monk Xu Yun’s Autobiography’, with the terms ‘He Shang’ referring to a Buddhist monk.

Cen Xue Lu was not a Buddhist monk, indeed, his biography suggests that he did not consider himself to be a Buddhist until the early 1930’s.  He was born in Shunde County, Guangdong province, and was a native Cantonese speaker.  At the time of his birth, master Xu Yun was already in his 42nd year.  His background is described as impoverished, and it is known that both his parents died when he was young.  From that time he was looked after by a woman surnamed ‘Lai’, who is described as a ‘secondary wife’.  His early schools years were difficult, but eventually he attended the Guangdong Military Academy.  It is interesting to note that Cen Xue Lu, who would become a renowned scholar, did not have a privileged upbringing, but literally studied his way out of poverty through will power and determination.  Furthermore, his education as a young man was purely military rather than spiritual.  At the military academy Cen Xue Lu met and became friends with one Huang Musong (1884-1937), a person who was to play an important role in Nationalist military and political affairs.  Cen Xue Lu was growing up in a China that was experiencing all kinds of political and cultural upheavals, much of it blamed upon the destructive presence of foreign colonial powers.  Intellectuals were looking for new ways for China to proceed, and the peasantry, at least of north China, rose up militarily during the Boxer Uprisings (1898-1901), in an attempt to rid China of corrosive influences.  Nationalist ideas were gaining important intellectual ground.  Although Chinawas still an imperial power in 1902 – the year of Cen Xue Lu’s graduation from the academy – the idea that perhaps there was another way for Chinato order its affairs was gaining support.  In this respect, Chinese Nationalism was necessarily ‘republican’ and democratic in nature.  It sought, as a movement, to abolish the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), and bring two thousand years of imperial rule to an end, and in so doing, usher in a new era of Chinese modernism.  Cen Xue Lu, however, did not join the Chinese military despite his martial education, instead upon leaving the academy (he was 20 years old) he became a primary school teacher.  After this, he became a newspaper reporter and whilst in Hong Kongin 1906, Cen Xue Lu formally joined the Nationalist movement, using his literary skills to propagate political propaganda amongst the readership.  After the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, Cen Xue Lu was given local (Guangdong) government posts one of which was in PanyuCounty.  At this time he did not believe in Buddhism and authorised the destruction of a Buddhist temple to make way for the construction of a new school in the area.  He continued to assist the Nationalist movement up until 1931.  In 1931, Cen Xue Lu developed a confidence in the teachings of the Lord Buddha.  In 1933, at the YongquanTemple, on Gushan (Drum Mountain), in the Fuzhou area of Fujian province, Cen Xue Lu took refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, under the guidance of master Xu Yun.  Cen Xue Lu was given the lay-Buddhist name of (Upasaka) ‘Kuan Xian’ (寬賢), which can be translated as ‘Vast Virtue’.  In the years 1933-34 master Xu Yun was already in his 94th year.  When he met Cen Xue Lu at Gushan, the Japanese Imperial Army had occupied the Shanhai Pass and sent a wave of panic through the area.  Many temples closed their doors to guest monks, but Gushan kept receiving monks travelling to the area by sea.

In 1935, Cen Xue Lu took up the important task of the collecting of data about the minority peoples of China, and about the peoples living on and around China’s borders.  This involved the gathering of ethnographical and demographical information through theMongolia– Tibet Association (蒙藏會), headed by Huang Musong.  This study was intended to be comprehensive and far reaching and Cen Xue Lu gathered and published much information onChina’s tribal peoples, including the Miao andYao, as well as the Hui (Chinese Muslims of Arabic descent), the Manchu, the Mongolians and the Tibetans.  The Han people (i.e. the ‘Chinese’) were also studied.  Cen Xue Lu gained a reputation for meticulous data gathering and information presentation.  His produced documents were logically presented and of the highest academic calibre.  He was responsible for the shedding light onto groups of people who were not greatly understood at that time.  In 1937, due to a change in political leadership, Cen Xue Lu was removed from his post.  He decides to retire from public life and takes up residence in the Tsuen Wan area of the New Territories (Hong Kong), where he lives off of the land.

In December, 1941, the Japanese Imperial Army attacks and destroys the British military defences in the New Territories and Hong Kong Island.  The Japanese forces brutalise the Chinese inhabitants who are left defenceless following the surrender of the British forces in the area.  The British colonial authorities had pursued a deliberate policy of not arming the local Chinese population, due to the fear that they might use the arms to over-throw the foreign rule.  As it transpired, the Chinese martial traditions provided a distinct Chinese response to the Japanese threat, utilising cleverness, forward planning, local knowledge, and traditional weaponry to inflict small but significant defeats on the Japanese, here and there.  In this way, modern Japanese weaponry was seized by the Chinese and turned against them.  Another source of modern weaponry consisted of the arms hastily abandoned by retreating British forces as they desperately tried to reach the temporary safety ofHong KongIsland.  Out of consideration for the plight of the local inhabitants of Tsuen Wan, Cen Xue Lu came out of his hermit-like existence, and using the knowledge of the military training of his youth, organised the local villagers into military units that were armed with abandoned British weaponry.  This effectively created a well organised local response to the military presence of the Japanese.  Guard patrols were organised to confront bandits and Japanese soldiers.  In this way, Cen Xue Lu demonstrated the distinctly Chinese notion of a scholar.  Not only must a scholar be well read, but he must also be able to defend himself and others when the times dictate.  However, despite this organised resistance, by the spring of 1942, food, and other essential supplies were running-out.  Cen Xue Lu was forced to leave the area, helping those that he can get to safety.

After this Cen Xue Lu takes his leave and travels to Qujiang, (situated in the district of Shaoguan, northern Guangdong province), where he visits the Nan Hua Temple (南華寺), famous for containing the mummified body of Hui Neng – the 6th Patriarch of Ch’an Buddhism.  The Patriarch’s body is sat in the meditation posture even to this day, although master Xu Yun had it and the mummy of Han Shan (1546-1623) secretly moved to Yunmen in 1944/45 to escape wartime damage.   Since the fall of Guangzhouto the Japanese in 1937, the provincial wartime capital has been set-up at Qujiang.  It was often the case that high-ranking Chinese leaders would meet at the NanHuaTemple.  For this reason, the area attracted attention from the Japanese air force.  On one such occasion, a Japanese bomb fell just outside of the temple wall, but did not explode.  At this time, master Xu Yun was meditating in the main hall, and all the guests had taken refuge in the Hall of the 6th Patriarch.  The Japanese bombers circled continuously until two collided and exploded.  After this time the Japanese air force was reluctant to fly near the temple when on missions. Cen Xue Lu had last seen Xu Yun in 1933, nearly a decade ago.  In that time Cen Xue Lu had worked as a sociologist, a historian and a wartime leader – he had also spent a number of years in seclusion.  Here, Cen Xue Lu, after undergoing many experiences since the fall ofHong Kong (to the Japanese), meets master Xu Yun for the second time in his life.  Master Xu Yun was then in his 103rd year.  Master Xu Yun said to Cen Xue Lu; ‘You have returned?  Occasionally come to this place and rest, and then you will know exactly.’  Master Xu Yun always continued ‘to hit the centre-point’ in his Ch’an teaching – but Cen Xue Lu did not understand.  Xu Yun took a deep breath and sighed before asking; ‘You have been trying to understand for a long time, but what have you achieved?  During this time, what have you achieved?’  Cen Xue Lu was shaken with fear to hear such a forthright assessment of his progress.  The Nan Hua Temple was central as a place of refuge from the dangers of war to the local Chinese people.  Some times even bandits would take refuge.  On one occasion a group of bandits had robbed retreating Chinese soldiers, and when reinforcements arrived, the commander planned to attack forty villages in the area – in an attempt to get back the stolen money and goods, as well as to punish the bandits, their families and supporters.  The elders of local villages came to the temple and asked Xu Yun to intervene on their behalf.  Xu Yun spoke to the commander and negotiated a peaceful settlement, with all the loot being returned.

In September 1944, Cen Xue Lu’s first wife passes away.  In August of 1945, the Japanese war of aggression comes to an end with the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japanese cities.  Cen Xue Lu commemorates this event by writing a poem that states that the atomic age has brought an end to a century of humiliation for China.  Shortly after this, Cen Xue Lu gives a lecture about Buddhism. His words are recorded by a reporter and preserved under the title of ‘Buddhism and life’.  In 1946, he returns to  Shunde County– the place of his birth – and is elected as speaker of the County Assembly.  He uses his influence to re-build Buddhist temples that had previously been destroyed – following the example of master Xu Yun.  In October of 1946, his second wife – Madam Huang – passes away after an illness.  Cen Xue Lu arranges her funeral and over-sees its completion.  Then in April 1947, he returns to the Nan Hua Temple in Qujiang, where he lives for several months.  In 1949, Cen Xue Lu retires back to the Tsuen Wan area of theNewTerritories.  He is invited to take an important academic post in Guangzhou– at the Research Institute for Culture and History – but declines the offer on account of his advanced years – and stays inHong Kong.  Meanwhile, master Xu Yun has come toHong Kongafter being invited by Upasaka Fang Yang-qiu to inaugurate his Buddha-shrine.  Master Xu Yun spends a month in Hong Kong, and meets Cen Xue Lu again – asking him to edit the Annals of the Yunmen Monastery.  Their conversation is as follows;

Cen Xue Lu; ‘The world is changing fast, where should I go to maintain my practice?’

Master Xu Yun; ‘To a student of Dao, his home is everywhere and if you only lay down everything, the place where you are is a Bodhimandala (place for realising truth).   Please set your mind at rest.’

Cen Xue Lu; ‘The monasteries will be greatly affected by what happens on the mainland; why don’t you stay here temporarily to expound the Dharma for the benefit of living beings?’

Master Xu Yun; ‘There are others who can expound the Dharma here.  It seems that I have a special responsibility to the temples on the mainland.  As for myself, my mind is beyond going or staying, but on the mainland, all the temples and monasteries are in a state of uncertainty.  If I stay here, who will look after the tens of thousands of monks and nuns whose plight will worsen; how can my mind be set at rest if I stay here?  This is why I must return to the mainland.’

After this, Cen Xue Lu worked upon his self-cultivation through Ch’an meditation whilst living in solitude upon the mountains of Tsuen Wan, New Territories.  Cen Xue Lu’s biography now recounts the tragic and awful events that unfolded within the mainland of China during the early months of 1952.  Cen Xue Lu refers to what happened as the ‘Cloud Gate Incident’ (Yunmenshi – 雲門事).  This is significant, as the Chinese word ‘shi4’, which can also refer to an ‘event’ or an ‘affair’, implies that a deliberate task has been undertaken that involves the deliberate fulfilling of official orders.  This tragic event must be viewed within historical context; in 1949, the Nationalist movement under Chiang Kai-shek had been militarily defeated by the Soviet backed Communist forces of Mao Zedong in 1949 – with Chiang Kai-shek and his remaining forces fleeing to the island fortress of Taiwan.  Around this time Cen Xue Lu left the mainland of China to take-up residence in the relatively safe British colony of Hong Kong.  Mao Zedong, however, pursued a distinctly ‘anti-traditionalist’ ideology which declared that any thing ‘old’ was the product of exploitation and should be attacked, uprooted and destroyed within Chinese society.  Part of this attack was the notion that religion was of no use and only served to encourage ignorance amongst the masses.  Although Mao’s views were not strictly speaking in accordance with the original academic writings of Karl Marx, nevertheless, they were reflective of the attitudes of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin – who financially, militarily and morally backed Mao Zedong’s war against the  Nationalist movement – indeed, in 1945, hundreds of thousands of Soviet Red Army troops invaded northeast China and destroyed the Japanese occupation forces located in that part of the country – before handing this vast territory over to Mao’s forces.  Modernisation was to be achieved in an instant, at the cost of everything considered ‘old’, and any one who thought that the traditional cultural methods were correct.  As some one who was already famous within his lifetime, who was a symbol of the old religious order, master Xu Yun was a prime target.  Through his pure living and venerable age, he linked a modern China on the brink of immense change, to a very long imperial era.  He had the power through example to influence the masses in a way that the new government could not tolerate.   In early 1952, Mao’s ideological changes were making themselves felt throughout the Buddhist community.  At Zhen Ru Monastery around 120 monks and nuns had gathered to receive the precepts from Xu Yun.

On February the 24th, around a hundred cadres from the local Security Bureau surrounded the monastery – preventing any one leaving or entering.  Master Xu Yun was imprisoned within the Abbot’s room, whilst the monks and nuns were detained in the Dharma and Meditation halls.  These one hundred cadres searched every inch of the monastery – including the roof tiles, statues and flooring bricks – for two days but found nothing illegal.  They then arrested the head monks Ming-gong, Wei-xin, Wu-hui, Zhen-kong, and Wei-zhang, and took them away.  All of Xu Yun’s personal correspondence, documents, registers, commentaries to sutras, and over a hundred years of his Dharma words were sealed in bags and took away.  The monastic community was accused of all sorts of crimes.  In reality, the local Security Bureau had acted upon unfounded rumours that there were gold bars, silver bullion, arms, ammunition and a radio-transmitter hidden in the monastery.  The cadres chose twenty-six monks to be severely beaten until they told the authorities where the items were hidden – all took their beating and said afterward that no such objects existed within the monastery.  The monk Miao-yun was beaten to death.  The monks Wu-yun and Ti-zhi had their arms broken – other monks went missing and were never seen again.  After ten days of this activity the cadres found nothing, and so decided to turn their attention toward Master Xu Yun.

On the 1st of the third month, master Xu Yun was taken to another room that had all the windows and doors sealed-up.  He was denied food and water, and was not allowed out to go to the toilet.  Xu Yun meditated in this dimly lit room for three days until a group of cadres entered and began to interrogate him.  They asked him where all the gold and silver was, but Xu Yun truthfully answered that there was none in the monastery.  The cadres first beat Xu Yun with wooden sticks; when this did not produce the desired result, they switched to iron bars.  Xu Yun’s head and face was profusely bleeding, and his ribs were broken – that day master Xu Yun was beaten this way on four separate occasions.  Throughout the beatings he sat in meditation and entered Samadhi concentration.  Finally, the cadres threw him to the ground and eventually left – empty handed.  Xu Yun’s breathing was very weak, but his attendants carried him to a bed and helped him sit in the meditation position.  On the fifth day, hearing that Xu Yun was still alive, the cadres returned and were shocked to see the master sat upright in meditation.  The cadres, in a furious fit of temper, beat, punched and kicked Xu Yun to the ground again, creating more bleeding wounds before leaving.  His attendants again carried him to a bed and helped him into the meditation position.  Although Xu Yun eventually reclined on to his right-side, and despite the fact that he was severely injured, he did not die.  Instead, on the eleventh day he began to talk and talk and told monk Fa-yun that whilst in this terribly physical condition he had visited the Tushita Heaven and the inner chamber of Maitreya Buddha, and heard the Dharma being expounded.  When the cadres saw this they trembled with fear, and although they stayed at the monastery for a month, making life difficult for everyone, they never touched master Xu Yun again.  However, Xu Yun was weak and the beating had rendered him both deaf and blind.  His disciples thought that he would die – so they asked him to dictate his life story which is preserved as the Xu Yun He Shang Nian Pu, and is the consequence of Cen Xue Lu’s editing skills, without which Xu Yun’s autobiography might have been lost.  Cen Xue Lu was sent the draft copy of Xu Yun’s life story up to the year 1952 – for safe-keeping – in Hong Kong.  As he lived in retirement Cen Xue Lu was able to dedicate his full scholarly talents to the project of turning the rough draft of notes into a proper book with a clear beginning and end, and with the logical order of chapters based upon the passing years of Xu Yun’s life, in a correct ascending order.  Of course, on the mainland ofChina, Xu Yun’s life continued and the subsequent events of years 1953 – 1959 were recorded by his attendants.  These events would be eventually integrated into Cen Xue Lu’s complete autobiography of Xu Yun, finished after Xu Yun’s passing in 1959.

The completed autobiography was eventually finished some ten years after the first drafts were handed to Cen Xue Lu.  This text has remained more or less in constant print in the Chinese language to this day.  However, in the West, English translations of the autobiography remain sparse.  It is interesting to note that Charles Luk (1898-1978) – who was also living in Hong Kong – started translating Chinese texts into English as early as 1956, with Xu Yun’s autobiography first appearing (in English) in serialised form in the World Buddhism journal.  Roshi Philip Kapleau (RochesterZenCenter) gathered these translations together, and released them in a single volume in the West in 1974, whilst Richard Hunn (a Western disciple of Charles Luk), produced the 1980 and 1988 editions with the latter being a fully re-edited version of Luk’s translation.  Xu Yun had asked Charles Luk to create accurate and reliable translations (in English) of key Chinese Buddhist texts – and near to the end of his life, Charles Luk requested that Richard Hunn improve upon the English text of Xu Yun’s autobiography.  None of this would have been possible without the dedication and expertise of the retired scholar Cen Xue Lu.  Regardless of who accesses the Chinese text, and into what language it is being translated, the work of Cen Xue Lu looms large.  He is the ever present, but often unrecognised catalyst behind the finished text itself.  The Chinese text has not been without its controversy, particularly with regard to the age of master Xu Yun at his passing.  Cen Xue Lu is of the opinion that the age is correct, as it is the age that master Xu Yun ascribes to himself, with a birth date of 1840.  In Xu Yun’s 71st year (1910-11) he received a letter from Bhiksuni Qing-jie – previously known as ‘Miss Tan’, one of his two former wives – both of whom had become Buddhist nuns when Xu Yun left home to follow the Dharma.  In it, she informs him of the death of his stepmother (previously Madam Wang), the Bhiksuni Miao-jin, who had chanted gathas (poems) before passing away in the seated meditation position in 1909-10.  Qing-jie also mentions that it has been over 50 years since Xu Yun left home.  This would take the date of this event to around just before the year 1859/60, assuming that Qing-jie’s letter was written in 1909/10 (in fact the autobiography records the exact date of this letter to be the 29th of March, 1910), at the time of Miao-jin’s passing.  This tallies with master Xu Yun’s statement that he left home (with his cousin Fu-guo) at the age of 19, in the year 1858-59, and went to Gushan (Fuzhou), where his head was shaved by the elderly master Chang-Kai.  Furthermore, Qing-jie gives the death date of Xu Yun’s father (Xiao Yu-tang) as 1864/65 – Xu Yun was 25 years old at the time – and mentions this event as occurring at exactly the same date in his autobiography.  Both his parents are described as being ‘old’ when they had him – Upasaka Chen Yung-chang’s stone inscription of Miao-jin’s gathas – mentions that Xu Yun’s mother was over 40 years of age at the time of his birth, explaining that she died just after the delivery.

Bhiksuni Qing-jie’s letter appears to form the central core of key worldly happenings in Xu Yun’s life (up until 1910) and may well have acted as some form of diary when it came time to describe the years from 1840 onward.  In other words, when dictating his life story in 1952, master Xu Yun (or his attendants) may have referenced this letter to provide important background information.  Whatever the actual case, it is obvious that all the dates contained within Xu Yun’s autobiography accord exactly with the dates presented in the letter itself.  Of course, once this is understood it is important to appreciate that the autobiography itself does not rely solely upon this important document.  Master Xu Yun’s memory is definitely at work throughout its pages.  Qing-jie’s letter of 1910, as recorded within the autobiography, suggests that Xu Yun was in his 120th year at his death.  The Chinese Communist regime, established in 1949 was producing a new academic climate of philosophical materialism that poured scorn on religion and spirituality.  The last decade of Xu Yun’s life appears to be a living defiance of this type of thinking, and it was in the best interests of the regime to attack and demean Xu Yun’s reputation at his death in 1959.  The age of 120 years appears to be linked with the pure religious life that Xu Yun lived.  Mao’s materialist regime believed that it could answer all of humanity’s needs and that there was no need for spiritual development.  The past had to be wiped-out so that a new future could emerge from its ashes.  When questioned about Xu Yun’s age, Cen Xue Lu stated in an open letter that although there was no corroborating objective evidence to establish Xu Yun’s birth-date, nevertheless, he felt the date to be correct in accordance with the information he had received from Zhen Ru Monastery.  By that time, and considering the many wars and social upheavalsChina had experienced over the last 120 years, it was not surprising that actual paper records no longer existed, or had not been found.  Cen Xue Lu did not add or subtract from the biographical material he received from the mainland ofChina.  For instance, Cen Xue Lu’s meeting with Xu Yun in 1933 (at Gushan) is not mentioned in the text (although it is obviously recorded in Cen Xue Lu’s biographical details), but a conversation between Xu Yun and Cen Xue Lu in 1949 (in Hong Kong), is included, although it is clearly distinguished as an addition to the text.  He worked upon the manuscript for around a decade – until after Xu Yun’s death in 1959.  As editor, his job was to arrange the material into an appropriate order, and in so doing create a coherent, continuous narrative running like a thread through its entire length.  The details of the text speak for themselves.  The debate of the length of Xu Yun’s life detracts from the actual quality of that life itself.  However, lengthy life-spans are not that unusual; Cen Xue Lu lived for just over 80 years, and Charles Luk lived for 80 years, whilst the Nationalist general Zhang Xueliang lived for 100 years (1901-2001).  Occasionally Western scholars have doubted Xu Yun’s age, usually taking their cue from the official mainland Chinese scepticism.  Holmes Welch, for instance, believes that it is a Chinese habit to exaggerate the age of those they respect, but at the same time offers no actual evidence to support a deliberate fabrication of Xu Yun’.  In fact he offers no examples of such fabrications at all within Chinese culture.  This situation is compounded by the fact that scepticism has even emerged from those claiming to follow in the lineage foot-steps of Xu Yun – particularly in the USA where one Buddhist practitioner is of the opinion that Xu Yun’s autobiography is a forgery created by Cen Xue Lu and Charles Luk, and that there was nothing particularly special about Xu Yun at all.  Of course, this kind of mindless speculation demonstrates a lack of depth of the understanding of Ch’an Buddhism in general, and the point of Xu Yun’s life example inparticular.  Charles Luk, it must be remembered, translated Xu Yun’s autobiography into English more or less exactly from Cen Xue Lu’s finished text.  Although Charles Luk had personally trained under Xu Yun, Luk makes no mention of this in his English translation, with the only additions being explanatory footnotes.  These footnotes are essential in explaining Buddhist concepts to a Western audience.

Cen Xue Lu led an extraordinary life.  He was directly involved within the Nationalist political and military movement that sought to end the imperial order and establish a modernisation of China very much in the Western model.  He developed a reputation for sound and accurate scholarship, and later in his life became very interested in the Buddhist religion.  He participated directly in the war against Japanese imperial aggression inHong Kong, and after 1949 assisted in the preservation of the Xu Yun biographical text.  His diligence in the task of developing it allowed a Chinese readership to remember and learn about Xu Yun – at a time when Chinese traditional culture was being destroyed.  This text, when translated into English (and other European languages) swept through a receptive Western world, bringing the life of Xu Yun to a new audience.  Cen Xue Lu not only edited the Xu Yun text, but also protected it from external attack.  His contribution to the preservation of Xu Yun’s memory is pivotal and vital.  Without Cen Xue Lu’s presence in the world, it is unlikely that the Xu Yun text would have survived as it has to the present day.  In this achievement, Cen Xue Lu should be remembered with respect.

©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2012..

This article also appears on;

Richard Hunn Association for Ch’an Study <—xu-yuns-editor.html>

©opyright: Adrian Chan-Wyles (ShiDaDao) 2012..

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