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.

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