Ch’an Buddhist Practice: Giving Up Sleep

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Many Ch’an masters, such as Ben Huan and Fo Yuan, talk of the inherent dangers for the mind whilst in the sleeping state.  This is because all kinds of hellish states can be accessed when the body is dormant, but the mind remains active.  Sleep in this context is not defined as a necessary means of resting the mind and body, but rather is viewed as an enhanced state of delusion.  Whatever the medical relevance of sleep on the material plane, the fact remains that it is part of a daily cycle that involves, on the one hand, a lack of physical interaction, whilst on the other actually freeing the unenlightened mind to explore its own complex nature, creating as it does so the illusions of bodily comfort.  When the mind is freed from the requirement to interact with the physical environment, it can enter the realm of dreams and nightmares.  The taints of greed, hatred, and delusion still remain in the dreaming state, but freed from the obvious physical limitations of the body, these taints enlarge, strengthen and distort perception to an ever greater extent. 

Sleep is usually considered essential for a human-being to survive, but many of those who engage in the practice of meditative absorption, arrive at a point of awareness where sleep, waking consciousness, and the state of unconsciousness, all appear contextually to manifest with a broader conscious presence.  This realised context represents a developed insight that perceives things as arising solely within consciousness, and not the product of a dualistic system that presents a separate body functioning alongside of an isolated mind.  Conscious awareness spreads through all the states of being without exception.  This wave of insight restores reality to the mind and allows experiences to be perceived as they actually are.  Sleep becomes like the flickering of the eyes, with all the bodily sensations associated with it, understood to be merely conditioned psycho-physical responses.  Whatever apparent ‘pleasure’ is generated within the sleeping activity, the fact remains that by its very nature, an equal amount of ‘displeasure’ is also routinely produced. 

Within the sleeping state there is a reduced physical awareness where the mind becomes overly absorbed in its own presence.  Freed from physical limitations it is able to indulge, enlarge and over-emphasis the taints of greed, hatred, and delusion to an unlimited extent.  Such ‘dreaming’ can have the strength to over-flow into everyday consciousness, but even if this is not obvious to the practitioner, the fact remains that whilst control is applied to the mind during waking hours, at night, whilst sleeping, the mind is free to do as it pleases.  The good work of focusing the mind through the gong an or hua tou Ch’an methods is undone by a sleeping mind that roams freely.  This is why the awareness generated within Ch’an meditative practice must be extended through the sleeping and unconscious states of mind, and not remain merely a product of the waking mind.  If this limited situation is allowed to persist, then for half the day the mind remains in a state of untrained, self-indulgence, and all the good effort is wasted.  Giving-up sleep is not necessarily not sleeping, although this is possible with practice, but is rather the ability of the Ch’an practitioner to remain equally aware in the ‘waking’, ‘sleeping’, and ‘unconscious’ states of being.  This means that the focus upon the pristine Mind Ground is not lost when there is a transition from one conscious state of being to another, and that this includes the moving from one bodily existence to the next – all of which occurs only within the mind.       

Peace in the Dharma

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