Canonical Chinese Ch’an


Although it is true that the method of securing transmission of the mind within Chinese Ch’an Buddhism transcends ‘words’ and ‘letters’, nevertheless, both ‘words’ and ‘letters’ are used, together with ‘silence’ and ‘actions’, in the securing of enlightenment.  The implication contained within Chinese language texts is that the Ch’an method is ‘not just’ words and letters, but includes other less well-understood expressions.  Moreover, although enlightened Ch’an masters often rebuked (sometimes severally) those who came into their presence armed only with the ‘dead’ words of others (i.e. sutra or commentarial expressions they did not really understand), it is also self-evident that these very same masters knew, remembered and fully understood ALL the sutras they did not rely on.  This is because the Ch’an School does not ‘reject’ the sutras, or consider itself a departure from the orthodox Indian Buddhism that spread to China, on the contrary, Chinese Ch’an views itself as the preserver of the Buddha’s ‘true’ and ‘direct’ method for realising enlightenment.  Ch’an is a developmental Buddhist method that emerges from the Pali and Sanskrit canonical writings, without being reliant or ‘attached’ to those teachings.  The Ch’an method ‘rejects’ canonical attachment at exactly the very same instance that it is nourished by the wisdom contained therein.

For Chinese Ch’an to be legitimate, its technique must be observable in the very canonical material it rejects as a potential ‘attachment’.  A term found in the Pali Suttas explains the Ch’an position clearly:

Pariyatti = ‘Learning the Doctrine’.

This term offers a path of progression for the student of Buddhism that has three distinct phases:

1) Learning the words and sentences of the doctrine (Pariyatti)

2) Practising the doctrine that has been learned (Patipatti)

3) Penetrating and ‘realising’ enlightenment (Pativedha)

The Chinese Ch’an method, utilising as it does a radical re-alignment of the psycho-physical processes ‘here and now’, reverses the above formula by relying upon a slightly different emphasis:

1) Penetrating and ‘realising’ enlightenment (Pativedha)

2) Understanding the doctrine that has been learned (Patipatti)

3) Truly understanding the words and sentences of the doctrine (Pariyatti)

The goal of Buddhism – i.e. ‘complete’ and ‘total’ enlightenment – is the point and essence of Ch’an.  The Ch’an masters always state that the words and sentences contained within sutras cannot be properly understood by a mind that is not yet ‘enlightened’, and therefore only serve as a hindrance prior to the attainment of this profound experience.  After enlightenment is attained, then the ‘prajna’ or ‘profound wisdom’ function is activated and ALL sutras (and commentaries) are automatically (and directly) understood without ‘error’ or ‘attachment’.  In this state of profound reality, then the purpose (and application) of the Ch’an method is directly understood.  When a deluded student comes into the presence of an enlightened Ch’an master, that master instantly understands the frequency of delusion present, and knows exactly how to dissolve and transcend it, returning the student’s attention back to the cognizance of the underlying and empty mind ground.  This is why the Chinese Ch’an method, moment by moment, transcends all attachment (even to sutras), whilst never leaving the precinct of orthodox Buddhist teaching.  Those who mistakenly believe that Chinese Ch’an is not orthodox Indian Buddhism, open the gates to hellish karma that leads thousands astray and causes untold suffering in the world.  This is why Master Xu Yun (1840-1959) steadfastly followed the path of:

1) Moral discipline (Sila)

2) Meditation (Dhyana)

3) Profound Wisdom (Prajna)

Whilst advocating the ‘immediate’ transcendence of all ‘attachment’ here and now.  This approach allows the ‘freedom’ inherent in the Ch’an to School to operate in tandem with the Buddha’s expedient path of good moral action in the world.  Moral good action ensures the generation of positive karma whilst immediately reducing and removing the hellish karma that causes immense suffering in the world.  The Ch’an method of emphasising ‘enlightenment’ here and now, over the gradualist method of the Teaching School (of sutra study), should not be used as an excuse to justify the very evil tendencies extant within the deluded, that the Buddha’s path seeks to ‘uproot’.  Eating meat, drinking alcohol, and reducing ‘killing’ to an expression of pseudo-profound understanding, are all examples of departing from the Buddha’s teachings, and signify the magnification of human (and animal) suffering in the world.  It is as simple as this; ‘delusion’ is not ‘enlightenment’, and ‘enlightenment’ is not ‘delusion’.  No matter how ‘direct’ the Chinese Ch’an method is, enlightenment cannot and will not be realised by those who manifest greed, hatred and delusion through their minds and bodies in the physical world.  Immoral behaviour is a physical manifestation of immoral psychological patterns operating in the mind, and its presence serves as a permanent ‘block’ to any advancement toward enlightenment.


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