Ch’an Dialectics


‘The illusion of form which includes the body and mind made of the five aggregates and the visible world is tackled first by returning each of its aspects to where it arises to prove its unreality.  Then the illusion of perception is wiped out by revealing its essence, or alaya, which like a second moon is also an illusionary creation.’

(Charles Luk: Preface – Surangama Sutra – Munshiram, (2001), Page xvii)

The Ch’an masters of ancient China are often judged as speaking nonsense, or even being ‘crazy’ in some Western-quarters, when the ‘enlightened’ dialogues with their disciples are analysed – supposedly in the cold light of day.  The problem with this type of analysis is that it is premised upon a major category error of interpretation that ignores or avoids the psychological and physical process the Ch’an masters are employing. This means that the ‘essence’ or ‘underlying’ aspect of the enlightened Ch’an dialogue is ‘missing’ from this limited interpretation.  It is like the presence of a wooden table being explained, without including the reality that it was once a living and growing ‘tree’ in the world, and that this tree was cut-down, and its trunk chopped into smaller pieces, which were then ‘processed’ into the applicable parts that are used to construct a standard table.  Everything in the world follows a logically discernible set of causes and effects, with a specific ‘cause’ eliciting a specific ‘effect’, and so on.  Far from being ‘illogical’, the Ch’an method is in fact highly logical, and a product of a sophisticated interpretation of depth psychology and behaviour.  The basis of the Ch’an dialogue is that of the interaction of ‘form’ and ‘void’ in the perception of the unenlightened disciple, as he or she is led to profound understanding by an already enlightened Ch’an master.  The Ch’an master either emphasises the ‘void’, or emphasises the ‘form’, depending upon the particular psychology (and understanding) of the disciple at hand.  This often rapid interchange of dialectical reality creates a ‘tension’ in the enquiring mind that assists in ‘loosening’ the bonds of ingrained attachment, and klesic obscuration.  This is the ancient Ch’an method at its root, which has nothing to do with being ‘crazy’, or ‘missing’ parts of one’s anatomy.  Dialectics, of course, can be traced not only back to the Buddha, but probably much earlier in ancient India, and of course in ancient and classical Greece, but the Buddha is unique in the ancient world in his use of ‘form’ and ‘void’ as a definite means to interpret and define reality.  It can be further stated that the early Confucian texts of ancient China utilised the dialectical method by juxtaposing ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour, as did the various early Daoist or proto-Daoist texts (which defined reality as ‘correct’ or incorrect’ paths of endeavour).  If the Ch’an method is understood properly, then the casual observer is not ‘limited’ to the surface level of interpretation, (as this mistakes the ‘surface’ for the ‘essence’), but instead understands that profound system of stimulus – response is unfolding in real-time.  As the disciple mistakenly presents a surface obscuration in the mind (accompanied by a corresponding physical behaviour), the Ch’an master automatically ‘dismisses’ this ‘limited’ interpretation of reality, and immediately returns to its ‘empty’ essence – whether the disciple is instantly enlightened or not, depends entirely upon that disciple’s historical conditioning – and the Ch’an master’s direct perception of that history as it existentially manifests.  If the disciple mistakes a state of one-sided ‘nothingness’ as ‘emptiness’, the Ch’an master might well suddenly present ‘form’ as an antidote (as true emptiness contains all form, and vice versa).  In reality, the Ch’an method does not go beyond the Buddha’s realisation of ‘perception’ and ‘non-perception – the so-called ‘Tathagata Ch’an’ – but differs in that the realisation of the empty essence of ‘perception’ and ‘non-perception’ is directly emphasised from the moment Ch’an training commences – the so-called Patriarch’s Ch’an’.

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