Articles by alphabetic order
 Ā Ī Ñ Ś Ū Ö Ō
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0

The Essence and Practice of Ch’an

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Cm 50x50.jpg
An13 975.jpg
Buddha-rupa1 300px square.jpg

By Maha Acarya Yang Fo Xing

  (Delivered in the First International Conference of Jungian Psychology and Chinese Culture)


 Part I The Origin of the Ch’an School

Ch’an is an abbreviation of the word Ch’an-na. This in turn is the Chinese version of the Sanskrit wordDhyana” which means collectedness of mind or meditative absorption. It refers to the process of calming the distracted mind in which all dualistic distinctions are eliminated. Ch’an is the virtue of the Devas (beings of the heavenly realm) living in Rupadhatu (the Realm of Form). It also denotes all kinds of Samadhi (state of absorptive concentration).

The Ch’an School is developed from two kinds of wisdom: Pratyaveksana-jnana (the All-Discerning Wisdom) and Samata-jnana (the Equality Wisdom), and it is different from the Dhyana of Triyana (Three Vehicles) which originates from Alaya Vijnana (storage consciousness) or Vipaka Vijnana. Since Ch’an surpasses Triyana, it is also called the Supreme Transmission Surpassing Triyana Teaching.

The Sutra “The Mahabrahma Asks the Buddha to Resolve His Doubts” says: “When Mahabrahma arrived at Grdhrakuta (the Spirit Vulture Peak), he offered golden Utpala flowers to Buddha and also his body as seat for Buddha to expound the teachings of the highest Ch’an. Buddha mounted the seat, picked one flower and showed it to the assembly. The one million humans and Devas present in the assembly didn’t understand the Buddha’s message except Mahakasyapa who smiled in apprehension. Buddha said: “I have the Storage of Real Dharma Eye, the Wonderful Mind of Nirvana and the profound Dharma-door that Reality is Formless and I’ll transmit these to Mahakasyapa.”1

The purport of Oneyana (One Vehicle or Buddha Vehicle) is also called the Storage of Real Dharma Eye. One cannot appreciate the mystic transmission of Buddha’s Mind Seal unless he has attained the real Dharma Eye. It is also called the Wonderful Mind of Nirvana as this mind in tranquility has the great potentials for permeating into things ceaselessly.

Mahabrahma is very good at entering Samadhi by banishing mundane desires. His offering of his own body as the seat for Buddha to preach Dharma is the basis for higher spiritual development. The highest Ch’an derives from Sunyata (void) and is as pure and unpolluted as lotus flowers. Buddha entered the highest Samadhi of Ch’an, and blessed the assembly. He picked a golden flower offered to him to see who could grasp his message. Only Mahakasyapa could appreciate the State of Wonderful Mind of Nirvana and had the intrinsic quality of pure lotus flower that symbolizes the Essence of Dharma. Mahakasyapa was the one with the Dharma Eye. Thus, Shakyamuni Buddha transmitted to him the profound Dharma-door that Reality is Formless. He became the first Patriarch of the Ch’an School.

Part II One Must Subdue Consciousness to Realize the Essence of Mind

Asvaghosa was born in central India six hundred years after Shakyamuni Buddha passed into Nirvana. He was intelligent and eloquent. As he often defeated those who debated with him, including Triyana Dharma masters, he became arrogant and self-conceited. Later he was converted into a Buddhist by Parsva – the Tenth Patriarch of the Ch’an School. On receiving the profound teaching of “One must subdue consciousness in order to realize the Essence of Mind” from Punyayasas the Eleventh Patriarch of the Ch’an school, he attained the state of Bhutatathata (The Real as Thus/Suchness). Thus, he became the Twelfth Patriarch of the Ch’an school.

This wonderful teaching of “One must subdue consciousness in order to realize the Essence of Mind” has greatly drawn the practitioners’ attention and has undergone development since its transmission to China. Its theory can be expounded hereafter.

Mind is the thinking faculty of sentient beings. It can be divided into three classes. The low class is mainly affected by consciousness, the middle class by Alaya Vijnana while the high class by Dharmadhatu Nature (Buddha Nature).

Realization of the Essence of Mind on the basis of Subdueness of Consciousness is the key to the practice of the Sudden Sect of the Ch’an School. This is shown in the chart below.


Buddhism holds that all sentient beings possess Buddha Nature, but ignorance and delusions cover it. Once ignorance and Karmic obstructions (obstructions caused by one’s previous evil deeds) are eliminated, one can realize the Essence of Mind instantaneously. It can be seen from the chart that ignorance and Karmic obstructions are Polluted Consciousness and Alaya Vijnana.

The Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng said: “Dwelling on rising thoughts is like waves in the water and such a state is called THIS SHORE. Stilling your thoughts is like water flowing smoothly, and such a state is called THE OPPOSITE SHORE”. 2 When waves rise, sentient beings will be bound by worldly desires. When waves subside, true wisdom surfaces. In other words, when people rely on their thinking faculty, their discriminating consciousness rises like the turbulent waves of the sea. And when they still their thoughts (Alaya Vijnana), discriminating consciousness will vanish as the sea becomes calm (an analogy of worldly desires). This is called A State Close to Paramita. When Alaya Vijnana is finally eradicated, true Prajna Paramita (true wisdom leading to the Opposite Shore) is attained.

For example: when a man sits on a chair that is above a table, it is impossible for him to lift the chair. To lift the chair, he has to get off the chair and stands on the table. If he wants to move the table, he has to get off the table and stands on the ground to do so. The chair is likened to his brain, the table his mind, the ground Bhutatathata.

The Sudden Sect of the Ch’an School belongs to Oneyana. From the initial practice as human beings to the final stage of reaching Buddhahood, practitioners have to experience three kinds of bodies.

1.Chen Shen (lit. Dust Body). It refers to the physical body of spiritual practitioner, comprised by consciousness and the four basic elements (earth, water, fire and wind). It is illusive, perishable and easily polluted by the Six Dusts (form, sound, smell, taste, touch and consciousness). It also interacts with external objects as the Six Dusts, so it is called Chen Shen.

2.Gen Shen (lit. Original Body or Root Body). Before getting rid of Chen Shen, practitioner will be using Ming Gen (lit. Origin of Life, an area about 5cm below the navel where the consciousness is located, also called Xia Dan Tian / lower kundalini in the traditional Chinese Medical Science) as the base to interact with relevant environments of the Six Dusts to eliminate Chen Shen. Things can function because they possess their own intrinsic quality. Although the intrinsic quality is formless, it can interact with the five organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body). Consciousness will differentiate symbols or marks and ignorance will arise. If a practitioner can banish all thoughts without leaving a trace, his five organs can gather the immaterial intrinsic quality within, forming a Li Xian (lit. Energy Current) from the top of his head to Ming Gen. This is called Gen Shen.

3.Fa Shen (Dharmakaya. lit. Law Body). When the physical body has not yet vanished thoroughly, Gen Shen appears in Alaya Vijnana. Because polluted seeds still exist in Alaya Vijnana, Gen Shen appears somewhat dim. Once the Innate Attachment to Ego is severed, the Polluted part of Alaya Vijnana will cease to exist. Then Gen Shen is free from the burden of Chen Shen. It becomes pure and is at liberty to come and go. When Gen Shen develops to its fullness, it can permeate to the top and the bottom of the Saha World (world of good and evil). When Gen Shen vanishes, practitioner will find his Essence of Mind not confined by time or space pervading the Universe. There is nothing that he doesn’t understand when the light of awakening shines upon him (i.e. he becomes omniscient). There is nothing that he cannot penetrate into when conditions arise. This is called Fa Shen (Dharmakaya).

To understand the three kinds of bodies, one uses the six organs of sense for Chen Shen. To observe Gen Shen, one has to subdue the six organs of sense and rely on the two kinds of internal pure consciousness- the seventh and eighth consciousness. To achieve Dharmakaya, one has to use the fully awakened mind to eliminate both Chen Shen and Gen Shen.

(The author’s note: the above-mentioned theory is from personal instructions given by Maha Acarya Feng Da An.)

Part Asvaghosa was born in central India six hundred years after Shakyamuni Buddha passedpt; mso-bidi-font-size:10.0pt"> The Ch’an School Originated in India But Flourished in China

When the Ch’an School lineage was passed down to Bodhidharma-the 28th Patriarch, he saw that the conditions in China were ripe for people to accept the teaching, so he came to China and became the first Patriarch in this land. He found that most Chinese Buddhists and Dharma masters were preaching Buddhism by relying on scriptures, which not only concealed the true nature of Buddhism but also became the obstacle to one’s realization of the Essence of Mind. Therefore, he formed a new school with the following purport: “Non-dependence on scriptures, direct pointing to human heart leading to enlightenment”.

Bodhidharma was a man with high integrity and was very strict with his disciples. Once Hui Ke was standing in ankle deep snow seeking the highest Dharma from Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma instructed: “A practitioner cannot expect to receive the unsurpassable Dharma teachings with little virtue, superficial wisdom, self-conceit and arrogance. He is only wishfully thinking if he harbours such thoughts.” On hearing this remark, Hui Ke became so excited that he cut off his own arm to show the determination to learn the highest Dharma.3 The Vimalakirti Sutra says: “A seeker of Dharma is prepared to give up his life for Dharma, let alone…”4

Bodhidharma passed on his lineage to Hui Ke who became the Second Patriarch. Seng Can was the Third Patriarch, Dao Xin the Fourth Patriarch and Hong Ren the Fifth Patriarch.

When the Fifth Patriarch got old, he knew his affinity with the people in this world would come to an end. One day, he assembled his disciples and said: “ The matter of life and death is important indeed. Day after day, instead of trying to free yourselves from Samsara (the cycle of life and death), you seem to go after merits for life only (i.e., merits that will cause rebirth). These merits cannot help you. Go and seek wisdom in your heart with the true Buddha Nature and then write a stanza about it. He who understands what the Essence of Mind is will be given the robe and the Dharma (i.e., the esoteric teaching of the Ch’an School) and be made the Sixth Patriarch. Go quickly without delay in writing the stanza as deliberation is quite unnecessary and of no use.”5

At that time, Shen Xiu was the instructor well respected by the disciples who all thought that he was bound to win the Patriarchate. They decided not to write the stanza, giving Shen Xiu the chance to show his stage of spiritual attainment. Shen Xiu’s stanza read:

“Our body is the Bodhi-tree,

And our heart a mirror stand,

Cleaning the mirror regularly,

So that no dust can cling to.” 6

(The author’s comment: If a practitioner practices wholeheartedly and gets the blessing of his master, he can break off the Discriminating Attachment to Ego and Discriminating Attachment to Things as Realities. His heart will open suddenly and the enlightenment light illuminates. This state shows that his Buddha-nature begins to develop. It is also the beginning stage of realizing the Essence of Mind. This internal realization of one’s Essence of Mind is the pure consciousness independent of discrimination of things. The light of Enlightenment is pure form or phenomenon. The so-called Instantaneous Enlightenment referred in this state is different from the understanding through pondering.

After a practitioner of Ch’an has experienced preliminary enlightenment, during his practice in Samadhi he should feel that his physical body no longer exists; he can only perceive the existence of Energy Current from Ming Gen to his head and it grows brighter. This is Gen Shen as already explained in Part Two.)

The first two verses of Shen Xiu’s stanza clearly described the state of Gen Shen (Gen Shen is compared to the Bodhi-tree and a bright mirror stand). Although he could break off two kinds of Discriminating Attachments and was indifferent to the differentiation of himself from other beings, Shen Xiu hadn’t eradicated Innate Attachment to Ego. Therefore, he would still be troubled by deeds in previous lives maturing in this life. Just as the third verse described “Cleaning regularly”, he also had to guard against ignorance that would make him undergo all kinds of physical and mental sufferings in Samsara. So the Fifth Patriarch said: “If one (his disciples) practices with this teaching, one will be saved from the misery of being born in the evil realms. The merit gained will be great indeed.”7

Shen Xiu had only reached the state of breaking off Discriminating Attachment to Ego and Discriminating Attachment to Things as Realities and this is the state of Pure Consciousness. He hadn’t eradicated Innate Attachment to Ego. I.e., he didn’t reach the state of Bhutatathata of Absolute Void. Nor did he eliminate all thoughts and realize the Essence of Mind. The Fifth Patriarch told him: “Your stanza shows that you have not yet realized the Essence of Mind (self-nature). You have reached the “door of enlightenment”, but you have not yet entered it.”8

Because Shen Xiu had attained the preliminary stage of the Ch’an practice by breaking off both the Discriminating Attachment to Ego and the Discriminating Attachment to Things as Realities, his moral character was better than that of worldly people. This could be proven by the following two examples.

1. Shen Xiu’s followers used to discredit the Sixth Patriarch by saying that he was illiterate and had no achievement. However, Shen Xiu said that he was not as good as the Sixth Patriarch as the Sixth Patriarch had attained enlightenment without the aid of a teacher and understood thoroughly the teaching of the Mahayana School. Moreover, his master the Fifth Patriarch wouldn’t personally pass on the lineage without some good causes. So, he asked his disciple Zhi Cheng to go to Cao Xi to seek instruction from the Sixth Patriarch who was preaching his teaching there.9

2. An edict dated the 15th day of the first moon of the first year of Shen Long Period issued by Empress Ze Tian and Emperor Zhong Zong read as follows: “The two grand Masters Wei An and Shen Xiu recommended that Mahayana Dharma should be sought from Dhyana Master Hui Neng of the South who had esoterically inherited the lineage of the Fifth Patriarch as well as the Mind Seal of Lord Buddha.” Thus, Eunuch Xue Jian was dispatched as the courier of the Edict to invite Master Hui Neng to the court. However, the Sixth Patriarch declined the royal invitation on the ground of illness.10

These two examples further illustrated that Shen Xiu was a real practitioner with integrity who always held the Sixth Patriarch in high esteem.

A Stanza on Eight Kinds of Consciousness quotes: “Sentient beings live under delusions day and night.”11This Attachment to Ego originates from the discriminating faculty of the Seventh Consciousness. Within the heart they hold the concept of ego and existence. They also differentiate this physical form from that physical form. Whether they are awake or asleep, there isn’t one moment they don’t attach to such delusions. Day and night they attach to the false concepts. Therefore, they treat people who bring them benefits as friends and those who bring them harm as enemies. This is the source of troubles in this world.

Hui Neng, a rice pounder in the temple at that time, heard one young boy reciting the stanza composed by Shen Xiu. At once he understood its esoteric meaning. So he said: “I have also written one stanza:

“Fundamentally Bodhi is no tree,

Nor the clean mirror a stand.

Everything is primordially empty,

What is there for dust to cling to?” 12

The first two verses indicated that Shen Xiu’s enlightenment is not complete and the last two verses illustrated the essence of breaking off the Innate Attachment to Ego. Once the Innate Attachment to Ego is eradicated, the practitioner reached the important stage of Ch’an practice and Bhutatathata as Intrinsic Void reveals itself. As all things are void by nature, Hui Neng stated: “Everything is primordially empty.” When the Seventh Consciousness vanished, nothing would be defiled, so the last verse read: “What is there for dust to cling to?”

Then, why did the Fifth Patriarch rub off the stanza with his shoe and claim that the author of this stanza didn’t attain the Essence of Mind? There are two reasons. First, the Fifth Patriarch intended to protect Hui Neng. He knew his disciplesmind and feared they would inflict harm upon Hui Neng. The second and the most important reason was that he knew even though Hui Neng had broken off Innate Attachment to Ego, he hadn’t broken off Innate Attachment to Things as Realities. Hui Neng understood the State of Void but not the State of Not-Void. He could only appreciate Emptiness but not the Intrinsic Value of Emptiness. It is like having the knowledge but not knowing how to use it.

The Fifth Patriarch knew Hui Neng was close to complete enlightenment after he wrote this stanza. When the time was ripe, the fifth Patriarch secretly went to see Hui Neng in his workplace. He knocked his stick on the grinder three times and left. Hui Neng understood the message and went to see the Fifth Patriarch on the third section of the night. The master used his robe as a shield so that nobody could see them. He taught Hui Neng the Diamond Sutra. (The author’s comment: In Tang Mi or the T’ang Dynasty Esoteric School, before esoteric Dharma is preached, the altar would be protected by preceding rituals to guard against the evil spirits. The Patriarch’s using his robe as a shield before preaching Dharma has the same esoteric meaning). Since Hui Neng had broken off Innate Attachment to Ego, he was free from attachment. With the blessing and instruction of the Fifth Patriarch, he seemed to be struck by lightening and was enlightened on hearing the verse: “They (Bodhisattvas and Mahasattvas) should develop a mind that does not abide in anything”. 13 Hui Neng said the following five “who would have”: “Who would have thought that the Essence of Mind is intrinsically pure! Who would have thought that the Essence of Mind is intrinsically free from becoming or annihilation! Who would have thought that the Essence of Mind is intrinsically self-sufficient! Who would have thought that the Essence of Mind is intrinsically free from change! Who would have thought that all things are the manifestation of the Essence of Mind!”14 These five sentences show that he reached the state where the Wonderful Existence Arises from the Absolute Void. The completely enlightened one not only knows the Essence of Mind but also can penetrate it into infinite space. He also totally corresponds to the profound purport that Form and Essence are nothing but the same thing. The highest wisdom can prove that all things are just the Essence of Mind and are without form. On the other hand, the intrinsic quality of all things can manifest itself in form through the Pure Consciousness. Form is Void and Void is Form.

The Fifth Patriarch saw that Hui Neng had broken off the Innate Attachment to Things as Realities and attained the state of Absolute Void or the highest stage of the Ch’an School. From then on, Hui Neng could spread Buddhism and transmit the Mind-seal of Buddha to future generations. Therefore, he passed on the Dharma and Robe to Hui Neng who became the Sixth Patriarch.

What is the esoteric meaning of the sentence from the Diamond Sutra: “They should develop a mind that does not abide in anything”? The answer is Consciousness and Form (or Phenomenon) are relative to each other. Before one subdues consciousness, his heart is attached to external environment. Only when he subdues both external and internal consciousness can he become free from any attachment or possession. Having reached this state, he can see all things in their essence (i.e., he becomes omniscient) and his mind can work without hindrance. This is real Prajna Paramita. Once he realizes the Essence of Mind, he can relate to anyone anywhere appropriately.

The Song of Enlightenment says: “Only get the root. Have no concern for branch tips. It’s like a precious moon hanging in the space permeated with infinite crystal lights. Now that I have obtained this Wish-fulfilling Pearl, both myself and others will benefit inexhaustibly.”15

(The author’s comment: “Like a precious moon hanging in the space permeated with infinite crystal lights” describes the state of Samadhi a practitioner has reached. The so-called “precious moon” and Wish-fulfilling Pearl are the crystallization of the Seed Nature of All Things. The Essence of Buddha Nature is also this Seed Nature, which includes the Seed Nature of all Buddhas and the Seed Nature of all sentient beings. Each Seed Nature contains attributes of one another. It can function independently or merge with another as a whole in unity. Each Seed Nature is interconnected with one another. This is the esoteric meaning of “I’ve obtained this Wish-fulfilling Pearl”. (Modern Internet can be one analogy to this attribute. When science and technology become more advanced, they can further prove the truth of Buddhism.) This illustrates why the Sixth Patriarch who was illiterate could expound Buddhist scriptures. His response to people’s question was quick. His explanations were precise and befitted people’s understanding.)

The Sixth Patriarch inherited the lineage when he was 24, had his hair shaved (was ordained) at 39, and passed away at the age of 76. For thirty-seven years he preached for the benefit of all sentient beings. Forty-three of his disciples inherited the Dharma, and by his expressed consent, became his successors. There were numerous disciples who attained enlightenment.16 The Sixth Patriarch had five outstanding disciples who later formed five branches. The Dharma lineages have been transmitted to the present day and spread to countries around the world, delivering countless sentient beings. The flourishing and propagation of the Ch’an School has played an important role in the spiritual civilization of mankind. Bodhidharma’s prediction long time ago has come true:

“The object of my coming to this land (i.e., China)

Is to transmit the Dharma for the deliverance of those under delusion.

When flower has five petals,

Fruits will come naturally.”17

The Ch’an School has its roots deep in Chinese culture for a long time.


1. Buddha. The Sutra “The Mahabrahma Asks Buddha to Resolve His Doubts”, from Maha Acarya Feng Da An, The True Face of Buddhism, p19, Hong Kong Buddhist Book Distributor, 1998.

2. Hui Neng. The Sutra of Hui Neng, Chinese version, p18, Hong Kong Buddhist Book Distributor, 1993.

3. Li Shan, Jiang Feng. A Modern Translation and Explanation of the Transmission of the Lamp, p12, The People’s Publishing House of Shandong Province, 1994.

4. Buddha. Vimalakirti Sutra, tr. Kumarajiva, p104, Chapter Six, Hong Kong Buddhist Book Distributor, 1998.

5. Hui Neng. The Sutra of Hui Neng, English version, tr. Wong Mou-Lam, p13-14, Chapter One, Hong Kong Buddhist Book Distributor, 1993.

6. Hui Neng. The Sutra of Hui Neng, Chinese version, p5, Chapter One, Hong Kong Buddhist Book Distributor, 1993.

7. Hui Neng. The Sutra of Hui Neng, Chinese version, p6, Chapter One, Hong Kong Buddhist Book Distributor.

8. Hui Neng. The Sutra of Hui Neng, English version, tr. Wong Mou-Lam, p16, Chapter One, Hong Kong Buddhist Book Distributor.

9. Hui Neng. The Sutra of Hui Neng, English version, tr. Wong Mou-Lam, p93, Chapter Eight, Hong Kong Buddhist Book Distributor.

10. Hui Neng. The Sutra of Hui Neng, English version, tr. Wong Mou-Lam, p106, Chapter Nine Hong Kong Buddhist Book Distributor.

11. Xuan Zhuang Tripitaka Dharma Master. A Stanza on Eight Kinds of Consciousness, Section Eight.

The Sutra of Hui Neng, Chinese version, p8, Chapter One, Hong Kong Buddhist Book Distributor.

13. Buddha. The Diamond Sutra, English version, tr. Upasaka Lu Kuan-Yu, p7, Association in Memory of Ven. Dharma Master Yan Ben.

14. Hui Neng. The Sutra of Hui Neng, English version, tr. Wong Mou-Lam, p20, Chapter One, Hong Kong Buddhist Book Distributor.

15. Yong Jia. The Song of Enlightenment, appended to The Sutra of Hui Neng, Chinese version, p119, Hong Kong Buddhist Book Distributor.

16. Hui Neng. The Sutra of Hui Neng, English version, tr. Wong Mou-Lam, p125, Chapter Ten, Hong Kong Buddhist Book Distributor.

17. Hui Neng. The Sutra of Hui Neng, Chinese version, p84, Chapter Ten, Hong Kong Buddhist Book Distributo