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.


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