On Saturday March 15th, Venerable Guo Yuan gave a talk on Ch’an Buddhism at the Buddhist Society in central London. It was well-attended with close to 80 practitioners and interested persons attending. We are grateful for all those who volunteered their time and effort to making this public talk a success and to Ven. Guo Yuan who spoke engagingly for over an hour only a day after a 14 hour flight from Taiwan.
Ven. Guo Yuan is the Director of the Ch’an Hall at Dharma Drum Mountain (DDM), Taiwan and has led many Ch’an retreats in the Far East, Europe and the USA. He had flown to London to connect with Ch’an Meditation London since we had been appointed a branch of DDM the previous July.
Venerable Guo Yuan’s Dharma Talk:
The topic set for him consisted of four questions and statements which he joked were two questions followed by an answer.
- What is the fundamental truth that underlays everything we see?
- At the heart of Ch’an is the fundamental nature of all things.
- How can Ch’an relate to our modern society?
- At the heart of daily life is Ch’an.
The fundamental nature of things
Ven. Guo Yuan chose to discuss this in terms of three aspects, of the physical phenomena around us, of our own body and of our mind.
Physical phenomena are always in a state of change, they are:
It is like a car manufacturer where the parts are assembled but we will not call it a car until it is complete and once it is broken, its usefulness is at an end and it becomes junk. All worldly phenomena are subject to these stages of becoming, staying, deteriorating and ending. Events like the tsunami and earthquakes point out that we have little control over what happens.
Our physical body is subject to:
- old age,
Ven. Guo Yuan related his own experience of the death of his father, his eldest sister and then his elder brother whose efforts enabled the family to leave Vietnam and settle in Canada. These events affected him deeply. This process of change to our body and for those of our family we all have to go through and cannot control.
Through our mind in meditation, we experience our thoughts which:
- give rise to other thoughts
All three of these – external phenomena, the body and the mind – are subject to this cycle of change but none more so than the mind which is continually bombarded by new information causing the mental landscape to be ever shifting. The Venerable related how DDM had acquired a new property in up-state New York in 1987 where the DDMBA Retreat Centre was built. The venerable was there when a heavy snowfall accumulated around the gazebo in snowdrifts that looked like waves. He took a photo that he used as a postcard and looked forward to taking more photos in the following year from different perspectives. However the snow did not return subsequently in the amount or drift in the same way and year after year he was disappointed. We have a tendency to hold on to things, to become attached to them. The Avatamsaka sutra says that the world is on fire and in our deluded thinking we hold onto it.
If we could cut off this attachment to things that are not real, then we will be detached from these thoughts, these views and the mind. Buddhas and bodhisattvas already have achieved this, therefore they say that they see the world ‘free’, spacious, empty and joyful, but when they look at us sentient beings, they don’t feel that they are in a Pureland and so wish to help us to understand the nature of phenomena. Once the fires of the world are extinguished, then we all will be liberated. However, for the moment, sentient beings are still in the world of love, hate, etc and so suffer vexations.
Why do we have attachments? Because we have a physical body and wish to satisfy it. Ven. Guo Yuan related an incident when Master Sheng Yen and he were at an airport and the former remarked, ‘look at all the brand name stores, all that they sell relates to people’s needs or wants. They never sell anything that is not connected with this.’ We work so hard, facing many difficulties in life and we may ask, who has created these stores, these goods? ‘Others’ you might answer but thinking more deeply, what are the causes and effects? Why are we born richer, poorer, smarter, crippled? There must be a reason stemming from our previous life or lives. The cause may be found in the three inverted aspects:
Inverted thoughts are those that we are not supposed to think about. Ven. Guo Yuan related the story of a person who approached him and said ‘I am a good Buddhist, I do only good and not things. Is this enough?’ Is such a thing true? Are we in such control that no bad thoughts arise? How many of us can notice when they arise? It is through meditation that we see for ourselves what is going on with our thoughts and see that we need to do something about it. Through meditation we understand that we need to practice.
Inverted views are thinking that impermanent things are permanent that is, not understanding the idea of cause and effect and therefore not believing in it. In Buddhism, we refer to cause and effect in terms of three lifetimes, the past, present and future, which represent our lives over many lifetimes. So if you don’t believe in this you don’t believe the correct view.
Inverted mind – we are tempted by the environment, the external phenomena around us, and have no control over ourselves. How can we know we have no control over ourselves? Consider the advice that a doctor may give us that we don’t follow, such as reducing sugar intake. Again Guo Yuan related, there was an experiment where people were held in a large room in which there were sealed, unmarked boxes. Initially they observed respectfully the property of others and did not disturb the boxes but inevitably they at first shook and tried to lift the boxes and then at last they opened them out of curiosity. Their sense of right and wrong was overcome by curiosity. Guo Yuan also spoke of another test with children where they were left with a dish of candy and told not to take any. Just as in the first story, temptation got the better of them over time, however the experiment showed that the longer the child held out against temptation, the better it was for the development of their self-discipline in later life. So it is for us all, we are tempted and need self-discipline.
There is a Ch’an story where the Buddha held up the Mala Pearl, a wish-fulfilling pearl, and asked the five devas (gods) what colour the pearl was and each said that they saw it as a different colour. Again the Buddha held up his hand this time without anything in it and asked, ‘What is the colour of this pearl?’ They all protested that there was no pearl in his hand but the Buddha said, ‘When I held up the Mala Pearl, you saw it but when I held up the real pearl, the Pearl of the World, you see it not.’ What is the real pearl? The truth, the unseen truth. This is what Ch’an is about.
How can Ch’an relate to our modern society?
How can Ch’an relate to our modern world? In these times, the pace of life is much faster and our lives are full of tension as we pursue one thing after another until we ask, ‘What is the meaning of life? What am I doing?’ Ch’an practice can help with this. We suggest the relaxation of both the body and mind.
We relax the body by focusing on the muscles, you will notice if there is tension in one part of the body or another. In your daily life, you can observe the tension in your body, such as the shoulders, and relax. If you cannot do this then you should use stretching exercises so that your sensitivity to the body is greater. Just now, for instance, I am aware that while I am speaking loudly so those at the back can hear me, my throat is tense.
When you feel your body is relaxed, you are aware of whether the mind is relaxed or if it is racing with many thoughts. In this circumstance, with a relaxed body, you can tell yourself to stop the thoughts but allow the mind to continue by watching the thoughts arise and allowing them to stop.
To do this, firstly you must relax your mind my using a method to gradually reduce wandering thoughts. As relaxation of both body and mind are needed, as you become aware of tension in one area of the body, you can adjust and continue to focus on the mind.
Secondly, you need to slow down and not force progress in your meditation session, since this will tense your body and mind. After all, even walking too fast will result in you tripping over.
Thirdly, you must release the mind from blockages or knots that tie it up. There are many such knots in both body and mind that we must release so we can move on not only in meditation but in our daily life. When there are no blockage at all, everything flows easily. This happens at different levels and depths that comes with practice and effort. This is how we help ourselves in the modern world we live in. If your life is so busy, hectic and filled with tension, then try this yourself. Through your efforts, in meditation, the body is empty and it feels like everything that occurs in body and mind is a good thing, very smooth and with no blockage and so it should be in our daily lives too.
Ch’an is where meditation and daily living merge. This concerns the practice of mindfulness in daily life.
First is to focus on the present moment which many of you will have heard about. This means working well in whatever you are doing at that moment. The past has already gone and while we should evaluate the past, there is no need to hold on to its emotional content. Without the hold of emotional from our memory, we will feel freer and more at ease with ourselves. We should make plans for the future but do not daydream. My teacher (Ch’an Master Sheng Yen) shared this story with me that if you go to a market to buy a horse and come back with a cow, you should be satisfied since you have a four-legged animal. This story relates that no amount of planning will influence the future that awaits us all so we should be content. This anecdote is about planning for the future, however daydreaming of the future is not productive.
Second is to relax the body and mind, which we have covered above.
Third is to stay with a clear mind. There are different levels of clarity, from ‘not sleepy’ to ‘a clear mind’. When you have thoughts, are you clear about them? Are you having bad thoughts? Are you clear about what is going on with yourself [at that moment]? If the answer is no, then we need practice.
With a clear mind, Ch’an Master Yu Yuan said, ‘any day is a good day’. Therefore every morning is a good morning and so with the afternoon and night, every hour, every minute. How many of us can live like this? Again, we need practice.
We need exercise. In Chinese, we are known as ‘things that move’ (animate) and so we all need to exercise. Sitting for longer than half an hour is not good for the body and mind and everyone should get up and walk around rather than sitting continually at the computer. If however you are kept at the computer you should do simple exercises for your neck, moving it without exertion from left to right, up and down, around in a circle to keep yourself mentally and physically alert. Once finished, return to a normal sitting position, relaxed and smiling.
Another point is to have a disciplined life, going to bed no later than 11pm since after this hour the internal organs are working and so require rest. If possible, learn to meditate every day. In this context, meditation doesn’t mean just sitting but also prostrations, reading the sutras, exercising as a contrast to your busy life. Sitting meditation of course will be quite beneficial and will always keep your body and mind at ease.
In Ch’an we also have some concepts to help us deal with daily life.
Firstly my teacher (Ch’an Master Sheng Yen) said that when you have a problem, you should face it, accept it, deal with it and then let it go.
Secondly, one must understand that things don’t last forever.
Thirdly, in our lives we must try to decrease self-centredness. How do we know if we are self-centred? When confronted with situations, what is our reaction? We see though this that our ego is very strong and powerful when reacting to situations.
Fourthly, we need a sense of humour. Whether we smile or not, it is our choice how we feel. When handling situations, we can do so negatively or positively.
In summary, Ch’an practice is needed in our daily lives because with this discipline we have fewer attachments and worries about the future while we do not hold on to memories of the past. Also, we have hope. For Buddhists we always have hope that we can attain Buddhahood in the lifetimes to come. If we can fix these things, then we have hope, but we need guidance and teachers to help us.
This teaching is about Ch’an but this comes from Buddhism. When it came to China, the focus was gradual practice where there were many details of practice that you needed to observe. The Chinese however preferred something more simple. The word ‘Ch’an’ is Sanskrit for ‘dhyana’, the practice of meditative absorption that developed into Ch’an. In Ch’an, we don’t practice all of the steps of the gradual method but the experience is similar. Both concern realising the state of emptiness or self-nature or enlightenment with the help of a teacher if possible. This is Ch’an practice. The first patriarch was Bodhidharma, and Indian, while the sixth was Huineng. After him, Ch’an blossomed down to this day.
Venerable Guo Yuan is the chief teacher of Dharma Drum Mountain (DDM) Meditation Center in Taiwan, a senior monk disciple of the well known Chan Master Sheng Yen. He studied under his teacher for over twenty years, and assisted his teacher in many retreats overseas. He was formerly the abbot of The Chan Meditation Center and the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in New York. He is Director of the Chan Hall, DDM Taiwan and currently leading Chan retreats in many parts of the world includes Europe, America, México, Taiwan and other parts of Asia