Master Xu Yun: Dull Emptiness is Not Enlightenment

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The Ch’an method of ‘stilling’ the mind signifies an important psycho-physical breakthrough in the practice of seated meditation.  Meditative effort builds-up an ‘inner strength’ or ‘potentiality’, that has the power to permanently shift the substance and functionality of the mind.  This means that the Ch’an practitioner experiences a ‘shift’ in conscious awareness that is simultaneously both ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ in its scope.  Although obviously a subjective experience unique to the practitioner involved in its attainment, such an advanced attainment is also objective in the sense that the mind (and body) re-engages the world in an entirely different and ‘new’ manner that is easily discernible to all and sundry, although any enlightened being can choose to ‘hide’ such an attainment from prying eyes.  Stilling the mind is a vital first step that proves the efficacy of the Ch’an method and the wisdom of the Chinese Ch’an masters, but in and of itself, merely ‘stilling’ the mind is not full enlightenment in the Chinese Ch’an School, but rather an important precursor.  Why do many people believe that ‘stilling’ the mind is enlightenment?  It is because the experience of a mind that has ‘stopped’ its incessant and deluded surface activity is not only a joy to experience, but is usually accompanied by an attendant sense of ‘bliss’.  Although the bliss may pass, as the mind (within the confines of the skull) is ‘empty’ of any discursive movement, it is assumed to be ‘enlightened’, but this is not correct.  Although an ‘empty’ mind (that is not yet expansive) maybe considered a form of (relative) enlightenment in the so-called ‘Hinayana’ School (i.e. ‘Lessor Vehicle’), within the Mahayana Ch’an School a further stage of training is called for.  Stilling the mind leads to an awareness of a ‘dull’ emptiness that is not expansive or all-inclusive of the environment and everything existing within it.  In Ch’an terms, this is referred to ‘sitting atop the hundred foot pole’, and is an analogy used regularly by Master Xu Yun (1840-1959).  Sitting on a high structure is precarious for an individual, because there is the ever-present danger of ‘falling off’.  In such a situation, the practitioner responds by ‘gripping’ ever more tightly to the structure, and will not let go.  This is an ‘attachment’ to a lesser state of attainment, an attachment which prevents further progression into the true realms of Ch’an enlightenment.  Furthermore, the notion that one is sat ‘atop’ a hundred foot pole is nothing but an illusion.  It is the last ‘inverted’ hang-out of a deluded ego that is desperately trying to retain its hold on the mind.  Although often experienced as ‘exalted’, there is still a subtle ‘subjective’ observer of an ‘objective’ state, with no integration of either aspect of perception.  Giving-up this delusion is like taking a plunge off a high cliff and needs tremendous courage.  However, as soon as the ‘plunge’ is taken, all fear instantly disappears as the illusion dissolves.  When such action is successfully taken, the dull emptiness in the mind (limited to within the skull) gives way to a pristine awareness that ‘expands’ beyond the confines of the skull, and becomes all-embracing (and reflective) of the entire environment.  However, even if this sublime and advanced state is realised, further ‘purifying’ training is required to ‘uproot’ the subtle traces of greed, hatred and delusion that may still exist deep within the psychic fabric of the mind.  Master Xu Yun describes this like a bucket of muddy water that is allowed to ‘settle’ so that the water appears to become ‘clear’ whilst the mud ‘drops’ to the bottom.  However, if the bucket is given a shake, all the mud simply spreads throughout the water again, creating impurity where there was once clarity.  Through the use of the hua tou method, Master Xu Yun advocates a dedicated practice that sees this mud of delusion slowly (or sometimes ‘suddenly’) cleared out of the water.  The water symbolises the empty mind ground that is also the Dharmakaya and the true self nature.  If the water is ruffled and deluded elements are present, then the ‘empty’ nature of the mind that perceives (and reflects) the world is permanently obscured and all is unclear.  Master Xu Yun (like all true Ch’an masters) advocates a continuous effort that does not settle for small advances, or mistakes subtle delusion for profound enlightenment.

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