Annual Teacher’s Address, Stroud 2010

Chuan-deng Jing-di, John Crook

The Annual General Meeting of the Western Chan Fellowship (2010) coincided with the anniversary of the death of the Venerable Chan Master Sheng yen, our Shifu, guide and Dharma advisor for many years. Shifu transmitted his first Western Dharma heir, John Crook, in 1993 and Simon Child in 2000. The WCF has thus had the unusual good fortune to receive instruction from two Dharma heirs of a great teacher. This annual Teacher’s Address is thus in part an expression of our great gratitude to Shifu for his advice, retreat presence and Dharma instruction over the years and also an investigation of the way forward for Chan in the West now that the Master is no longer with us. This leads us into a timely examination of the ways in which expressions of traditional Chinese Chan may be presented to beginners in the West taking into account particular discussions and correspondence between Shifu and John over many years. We dedicate this lecture to the memory of our Shifu in profound gratitude and reverence. Editors.

Shifu and his Dharma Heirs: Relations between the Western Chan Fellowship & Dharma Drum Mountain

The death of the Venerable Chan Master Sheng yen (our Shifu) last year has been a traumatic event for all of us, especially those of us who had received personal teachings from him. A direct relationship with a great Master is rare and wonderful and the disciple comes to depend on feeling the Teacher will always be there ‘on call’ when problems arise. Needless to say, this illusion is inevitably trashed.

The departure of a great Master forces those Dharma Heirs he has left behind him to consider their own approach to teaching the Dharma. Throughout the history of Chan, as one generation passes to another, there have always been unavoidable shifts in emphasis dependent on the personal views, personalities and capacities of the inheritors. Indeed, it is remarkable how the fundamental teachings of the Buddha have survived given the powerful personalities of successive Zen masters. The reason for this lies in the fact that Zen does not depend on idiosyncratic teachings, personal approaches, or indeed any philosophical position subject to personal opinion but is rooted in a fundamental experiential understanding of life and world that is essentially universal throughout humanity (i.e. ‘A special transmission outside the scriptures’). This spiritual basis can be found in all religions but the Zen perspective is particularly direct and free of over-interpreted fantasies. Insight into this universal experience has never ceased to be the key understanding and focus of great Zen masters.

The relation between Dharma Drum Mountain, Taiwan and New York, and the WCF is rooted in the involvement of Shifu in both of their creations. In the WCF, the question of how to integrate cultural contrasts between Chinese and European thought within Dharma teaching was present from the beginning. When Shifu affirmed my inka experiences, he asked me to lead retreats in Silent Illumination at the Maenllwyd as it were as his ‘representative’. At that time, I asked him, “I am not Chinese. I am not a monastic. How can I best do this?” Shifu had replied, “I am Chinese. You are English. You find out”. He was always willing for me to present the Chan Dharma in an authentic, personal way – not as a mere imitation of what he had done or said. We had much discussion along these lines throughout our relationship.

The first focus for discussion was the structure of the ‘Western Zen Retreat’ a basic retreat that I had compiled from Western sources before I began training with Shifu.1 Shifu took a great interest in this from the very first time we had met. He believed it was a valuable Western approach, which only required the addition of Lay Precepts and an emphasis on the importance of compassion to make it ‘truly’ Zen. When Shifu eventually encouraged me to take this improved retreat form to Dharma Drum Retreat Centre, Pine Bush, New York, he showed his trust in what I was about. Subsequently, with rather greater interaction, he queried and finally supported the development of our new method of presenting Koans on retreat.

These discussions drew attention to certain contrasts between social aspects of the Western and Chinese minds that became clearer as we went along. It is on a basis of these contrasts that a certain shift in emphasis between the DDM approach and the WCF approach is inevitably developing. Even so, for reasons stated, our essential insight into the Dharma remains one. Only the methods are varying as we seek to convey the Dharma most appropriately to peoples of differing culture; our lineage loyalty is not affected.

My discussions with Shifu turned out to coincide with the development of a more broadly based academic interest in contrasts between Western and Chinese psychology and they had therefore the timeliness of a wider relevance we had not fully recognised. Recent research from the empirical literature shows that there are significant differences between Eastern and Western measures of several aspects of ‘self’; self-esteem, self-efficacy and self–enhancement. Furthermore, research shows that these differences are less when measured between Chinese acculturated in the West and their hosts suggesting a social causation for the contrasts.2 In addition, measures relating to concepts of ‘happiness’ differ between Western minds focussed on personal independence and the interdependent social focus of the Chinese.3 Several psychological studies point to an historical shift towards Western mental structures among Chinese in recent years, reasonably attributable to the growth of consumer capitalism and Western business attitudes in China. The emergence of a complex personality type that is partially Western with respect to certain contexts such as business and Chinese with respect to general social life has been noted for example in Hong Kong. Conversely, we find the increasing importation of psychotherapeutic methods derived from Chinese Buddhism and Taoism in Western mental health care and an increasing focus in the West on the need for cultural change towards a more collective and less individualistic stance, such as that found in Chinese psychology, in political attitudes towards the developing Climate crisis.4 There is thus currently a demonstrable tendency towards convergence between Chinese and Western approaches to psychological issues. The discussion on retreat practice that follows has a relevance to these concerns.

Self-Expression in China and the West

Chinese and Western people differ subtly in many sociological and psychological features underlying their attitudes to life.5 The major one in question here concerns the understanding of the self. Research has shown comprehensively that, compared with Chinese, Korean and Japanese peoples, Westerners – that is Europeans and Americans, especially the latter – are quite remarkable in their often-excessive focus on self-importance. At almost every level and in almost every interaction the Western person is concerned consciously or unconsciously with how his or her self-image will be affected by any behaviour – either one’s own action or how to respond to other’s actions. This concern begins in the family, develops through education and is manifest in the highly dualist and competitive relations between fellow businessmen, academics, politicians or any professional person. By contrast, the Easterners show an equally clear yet contrasting focus based in a self-process that emphasises mutuality, sharing, and development of common aims, cooperative and team-based activities rather than ego competitiveness. This contrast has a wide range of consequences socially and politically.

Within Chan, it affects the attitude towards the purpose and function of group and individual activities. Young westerners often seem to be competing as to who will become enlightened first and develop quite fierce competitiveness as to whose is the best master or method. Commonly a Zen beginner arrives with an intense desire to ‘achieve’ enlightenment, which is perceived very much as a successful consequence of diligent training with undoubted benefits as a credential – at least in one’s own mind. This attitude was greatly enhanced by the rather one-sided introduction of Zen to the West by the Rinzai focussed teacher, Daisetz Suzuki, with its emphasis on getting enlightened.

Shifu expressed this contrast to me once as follows. He said that when he suggested a method to a Chinese retreatant the person would say “Yes Shifu”, go off, and do it uncomplainingly perhaps for years. A Westerner in the same situation was likely to ask “Why?” and privately consider whether Sufism might not suit him better.

The interdependent Eastern social relations rooted in generating mutuality have, none the less, a defect. Lacking in individualistic concerns the process can lead to groups of cohering persons worshipping over-authoritative teachers who are rarely subjected to criticism, and to sectarian stances that are not adequately debated, evaluated or criticised; for example the militarism of the Japan's Rinzai orders in the 1930’s and 40’s, yet its absence in the Soto sect.6

As I began teaching Zen, it became clear that one of the chief karmic blocks a Western beginner had to encounter in practice was his or her own ego-concern. This wells up in endless hassling thought circling around personal problems pivoting on fears from self-criticism in personal, usually relationship problems. By contrast, as we began working with Chinese people, it also became clear that many traditionally educated Chinese practitioners could not relate easily to the question ‘Who am I?’ For them, a really powerful question would concern relations within the family or the firm. For example ‘What is freedom?’ or similar. These contrasts suggested that for each culture slight differences in the presentation of Huatou and Koan retreats would be helpful. This is what lies at the root of many of our innovations.

Dharma Clarity in the West

Careful reading of English translations of Chinese instructions concerning method and focus in both individual meditation and on retreats suggests that the subtleties of Chinese language are often not being well conveyed to Western readers and that Western mental subtleties are rarely a focus of Chinese interest. For example the Chinese word Hsin has a variety of subtly related meanings. Some translators give the word ‘mind’ as its meaning, others ‘heart’, yet others try to present yet further subtleties. At root, Hsin refers to both of what we speak of in English as mind and also heart. To use one of these terms rather than the other shifts a Westerner into either thinking in terms of the intellect and hence philosophical explanations, or into emotional reference that ends up in some poetic or psychological view. The Chinese reader will be interpreting the word in a much more inclusive manner. Similarly, the word ‘happiness’ produces similar problems.7

This and related puzzles lead to particular problems when texts try to discuss experiences that are essentially beyond objective understanding, because they lie beyond access by discriminatory thought. (i.e. ‘A special transmission outside the scriptures, no dependence on words or letters’) Instead of gaining some psychological insight, a beginner may only find wordy obscurity. The problem here resembles a question such as ‘What is the taste of water?’ A reply might be ‘No-taste’, which is of little encouragement to some investigator of water.

Such problems become quite acute when experiences arising in meditation are in question. Since experiences of an ineffable kind lie at the root of Zen, the manner in which they are described, explained or discussed become crucial to teaching. Most such translation seems ineffective. Indeed many translations purporting to explain the significance of Buddhist wisdom use words such as ‘awakening’, ‘enlightenment’, ‘emptiness’, ‘Buddha-nature’ or other subtle metaphors, which do not allow a beginner a practical rather than a plausible intellectual insight on why he should follow training.

The Obscurity of Mu

A good example of a case where such difficulties arise for Westerners, especially beginners, is to be found in considering the koan ‘Mu’. We will recall that when the Master Zhaozhou was asked “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” he replied “WU!” – a Chinese word simply meaning “NO!” (Japanese Mu). This is an odd response when Buddhists believe in the universal presence of Buddha nature. Yet, this is one of the most popular koans in China and Japan, stories given to monks in training to reveal the basis of enlightenment. What did Master Zhaozhou mean?

Some Chinese authorities argue that Mu is the best of all koans precisely because it is meaningless. Yet, then what is it that is NOT? If Mu implies an ‘emptiness’ that is NOT anything, what is the meaning of such ‘emptiness’? The beginner is told that the solution is only to be found by breaking out of doubting enquiry in an enlightenment experience (Jap: kensho, Chin: kai wu). But if Mu is meaningless may that not mean kensho is also meaningless? Kensho is inexplicable in words – so what use is it? In what sense is the term ‘meaning’ being used here? What does MU actually refer to?

The ego-centred Western beginner always needs a ‘use’ or a function. He or she requires an understanding of what the usage of meditation is. Shifu’s viewpoint is that the advantage of the meaningless Mu is that it prevents a practitioner wasting time with worrying about self. It gets straight to the point of forcing one to break out of reasoning discriminatively about an answer. The Western beginner may find this ‘meaningless’ response merely confusing and off-putting. Shifu’s proposed list of alternatives would then be far more attractive.8

Western beginners commonly belong to a post-Freudian, post-Darwinian and post-Einsteinian intellectual culture that always rejects questions that are not meaningful in some practical sense. Many do indeed find Mu problematic, are not encouraged to proceed or get stuck in some fantasy about it which, without good teaching, may last for years. Given the self-focussed concern of the average Western mind, a meaningless question is given little patience. A koan that is so resolutely empty seems even to destroy its own paradox and it is an intriguing paradox that keeps the Western mind involved.

The traditional Chinese approach to Mu is based in the view that rather than wasting time with dogs and their attributes, the practitioner needs to experience that very real felt ‘emptiness’ that comes when thought and attachment are dropped. But a Westerner, even when falling into some such preliminary experience, may fail to appreciate it; rather asking what is the point of something so beyond any thoughtthrough ‘usable’, ‘practical’ or personal meaning. The Westerner, prior to undertaking any Buddhist yogic mind enquiry, usually needs to have a view as to why this understanding is actually of deep significance. This calls for a basic ‘faith’ in the method and needs some preliminary work. There is then a strong case for arguing that the Western mind needs to sort itself and its conundrums out to a considerable degree before it can generate the doubt appropriate to koan enquiry. The ‘Who am I?’ question is therefore a good one for a beginner in this culture.

New Retreats Using Koans

In traditional Chan, koans have been used in retreats in many different ways; as a series to be answered one by one, as a single paradox for long term study, as an expression of a life time’s difficulty or as a basis for sermons. Recently koans in their full form, as opposed to the short excerpts (hua-tou) often used on retreats, had been somewhat neglected in Chan. I felt koans expressed wonderful paradoxes and that these puzzling stories often suggested guidelines both in resolving personal problems and in elucidating Dharma.

In our freshly designed Koan Retreat, I present retreatants with sets of koans that they examine on the first day. They are asked to choose one of them on which to work. This idea came from Shifu’s discussion with me of the ‘Life Koan’ as the prime karmic confusion in a person’s life. Every person, Shifu would argue, has a key set of issues that as a Life Koan creates problems for him/her throughout life. To me, it seemed that a practitioner’s choice of a koan would therefore be based in a feeling for its personal relevance and that the choice could be none other than an indication of some connection with a Life Koan. It would not be essential for the person to have any understanding of this; a feeling of intrigue at the wording would be enough. The most intriguing koan should be therefore the one selected for investigation. Furthermore it seemed that for a Westerner to dive immediately into traditional koan observation might not be as helpful as a thorough, typically Western, initial search for some rational, ego based explanation. Given the nature of paradox no such ‘answer’ would be found and the practitioner would then resort to more meditative examination in the Eastern style.

The manner in which this approach has worked out on retreat 9 has provided good evidence for the accuracy of this viewpoint and has led to people making much progress in both self-understanding and in personal insight within the Dharma. The WZR, the Koan and Hua-tou retreats that we present have therefore come to focus on self-confrontation in ways that traditional Zen retreats consider much less clearly but of which Bodhidharma would probably have approved! (See below) These innovations have led us to further understandings in seeking to express the processes of change during retreat.

Clarity and Insight

Master Hsu yun has said that the practice of zazen, either as Silent illumination or in a koan or hua-tou investigation, is to illuminate the mind so that we can see our ‘true nature’. This ‘true nature’ or ‘Buddha nature’ is Emptiness experienced – not a void without objects, nor lacking anything, but rather the basis of sentient being – ‘emptied’ of words. Experiencing and eventually understanding this and applying such understanding in life is the purpose of the Dharma.

In practising Silent illumination, Shifu always stressed the calming of the mind to reach a one-pointed awareness of the totality of a body’s experiencing (Total Body Awareness). Once achieved, this awareness may be widened to admit sensory impressions. Once this is stabilised, changes in experience may appear spontaneously. These may include a loss of a sense of time, a widened awareness of space and later possibly bliss, gratitude, and a disinterested love of being itself. These shifts in feeling lead into a quiet tranquillity. The Japanese call these experiences makyo, illusions, since untrained persons may mistakenly think they are enlightened. I call this condition ‘Self at Ease’. The feeling of being a normal self remains present during these shifts in awareness. It is clearly ‘me’ that is having them.

The hua-tou method may be either intense or relatively relaxed.10 The concentration takes the form of an obsessive enquiry, known as the ‘great doubt’, into such brief paradoxes as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or ‘What is next?‘ At some point, during either Silent Illumination or hua-tou work, some stimulus, usually quite small and either of an inner or outer nature, may trigger a sudden change. This change comes ‘from its own side’ without any self-involvement, wishing or desire and the continuing presence of ‘me’ is disrupted. It is as if at the centre of awareness there is a mirror where the ‘I’ had been and in which all impressions are reflected without any comment from the mirror itself. Shifu calls this experience ‘self forgotten’. While the intensity of the experience may be suppressing the normal awareness of self, it remains possible that the egoic component of self changes in form to a bright witnessing with a mirror-like quality lacking self-reference. This experience of ‘insight’ (prajna) beyond ego is essentially ineffable – one can try to express it but it is essentially beyond the reach of language. Although this is an experience of ‘emptiness’ – an emptiness of access to word, thought, idea – yet the immediate environment is extra-vividly present in a unique way, extraordinarily brilliant, clear and vivid. One is uninterruptedly ‘present in the presence of the present’.

What then has this ‘insight’ seen? It has seen the triviality of the wordy, discriminating mind of anxiety, its utter lack of solid basis and its impermanence and, by contrast, it has perceived a state that seems basic and fundamental, a mental truth. This is however not yet what is called kai-wu in Chinese or kensho in Japan, the ‘enlightenment experience’, although it is indeed the underlying essence of that experience. Although the egoic self has been ‘forgotten’ during the experience, self is still present as a witness and the experience is still reported as ‘I felt’.

Although the translated words of these accounts appear clear enough within their theoretical presentation, there may remain uncertainty as to what ‘doubt’, ‘illumination’, ‘true nature’ and ‘Buddha nature’ actually mean in the personal life and practice of beginners. What should one do? While the Chinese terms may work well for them, we need to explore their meaning for us in the West. Let us investigate further.

Having a look at the way the Buddha and other thinkers of his time understood the structure of the mind assists us here. The mental attributes or skandhas provide us with a basic model of how the mind functions in everyday activity. The mental processes involved are sensation, perception (knowing what the sensation is), cognitions and will, (comprehension of the perceived experience in relation to one’s lifenarrative and acting on it), and conscious awareness, which underlies the others. One’s personal history is formed through the action of sensation, perception and cognition: they create the conditioned life story that we know and entitle through our names – John, Betty. When we think, we probe the storehouse of memories based in these three attributes and seek resolutions to problems. We construct ideas, viewpoints, illusions, intellectual insights and actions that lead either to anxiety or potentially to a homeostatic sense of ease. All of them are necessarily based in the presence of awareness.

The hassling mind of everyday is the continual judging or evaluation of these mental events as they go along moment to moment. The key result is the sense of being an anxious ‘me’. ‘I’ am inferred to be an objective presence, a ‘thing’ with all these mental events as its attributes. Yet, as the Buddha told us, all of this is subjective and all impermanent. We cannot rely on any of it. We have developed attachments to what we like and aversion to what we don’t like. The interplay of these in a world of impermanence constitutes human suffering. As far as we know, no other sentient beings, except possibly the Great Apes, even remotely suffer in the way our ego-hood forces upon us. To a huge extent, the ego is our problem.

The Buddha set out to solve it and the Dharma has been the result. In the texts of the ancient Abhidharma the fundamental analysis is expressed both philosophically and as a basis for practice. The central theme in Zen is the setting aside of ego-related suffering and acquiring the Mahayana practice of compassion that follows from that. The practice operates in two ways; stabilising, calming and letting go of anxiety, and, secondly, gaining insight into the fundamental nature of mind – its ‘true-nature’ (see Tables 1 and 2).

Most Buddhist meditation methods apply the two processes of calming the mind and gaining insight into its nature – although in slightly varying ways. Calming the mind is basic because the problems of karma need quietening. Once the mind is calmed, one may persist with silent investigation or jolt up that calmed mind with calculated questions – such as a koan or hua-tous. The process is gradual until suddenly insight occurs and the problem is resolved, as Hsu yun explained above. The sudden resolution comes from the entry of the second method acting from its own side, experientially.

Some individuals, whose karma is less obstructive than others, may experience that insight quite quickly, moving from Self-at-Ease to Clarity or suddenly falling into Clarity from a one-pointed mind. Fundamentally, this prajna insight is the personal realisation that all thought, feelings, ideas, are merely mental processes empty of any objective being or significance except on their own dreamlike level. This ‘realisation’ is presumably the completion of what Shifu called ‘contemplating emptiness’, which involves cognitive experiencing beyond merely intellectual insight.11 The personal realisation is experienced as a sudden plunge into an emptying of all ideas – and ultimately even the idea of self, entirely. Only that which is seen in the remaining bare awareness remains shining in an undistorted clarity. What has happened is that all the operations of mind cease – except for the maintenance of a mirroring awareness present as an extraordinary and unique clarity free of ego orientation. This ‘self-forgetting’ is distinct from a yet further experience of realisation where self is ‘absent’ entirely and only recognised as it begins to reappear – this is then ‘seeing the nature’, an ‘enlightenment experience’. In all this ‘no-self’ awareness there is a strong sense of ‘freedom’. Returning to daily life, such a mind knows it is free to ‘dream’ anew. The prison gates are open. The meditation process can be described in these practical terms and the valued result emerges through the bliss of the final perception and its consequences in life.

Developing Western Chan

Most practices of Zen meditation in the West begin with Calming the Mind (samatha). Indeed given the complex, agitated sense of self among Westerners and their basic insecurity, it would be hardly possible for those who are beginning training to attempt any direct insight into such a troubled mentality until agitation has subsided. Yet, perhaps to our surprise, the founder of Chan in China, Bodhidharma, in one of the earliest descriptions of practice, did not suggest beginning in this way.

Bodhidharma said there were two aspects to Zen, the Principle and the Practice.12 The Principle is the enlightenment experience itself, and he probably implied also the preliminary experience of clarity in a timeless present. However, he argued that only people of sharp intelligence could achieve this insight without prior training in practice. Actually, I think that there is a translation problem here. I suspect Bodhidharma was not talking about the intelligence of the clever mind but rather the fact that most people suffer from ignorance arising from problematic karma and that it is the karmic bias of the self that prevents insight. Certainly, those with severe karmic problems would need an initial practice. So what does he mean by practice?

It is not samatha. Rather, it is the use of self-criticism and self-knowledge in the context of examining karmic reactions. In the first of Bodhidharma’s methods, the practitioner is asked to respond to the aggression of another through considering his/her own involvement in causing the other to be aggressive. In other words, he wants the investigative practitioner to respond to the antagonism of another with reflection on his/her own role in it. This is, of course, a form of self-confrontation. In effect, it is a ‘Who am I?’ question contextualised in a specific personal situation.

His second practice broadens the approach by requiring meditation on one’s personal role in the everyday causes and effects of daily life – that is within context of the Law of Co-dependent Origination. This requires practitioners to investigate their karmic past and immediate relations with others. The third practice is to allow life to function within the Law without manifesting attraction or aversion to whatever happens. The fourth is the practice of a life in the Dharma through following the Bodhisattva path. Each practice requires self-examination and confrontation with karma in a series of widening levels.

This is a fascinating finding because it implies that self-confrontation is the basic practice recommended in the earliest Chan. This is exactly what we are emphasising in our forms of retreat so why has samatha become emphasised so strongly? The answer is that samatha is one of the key Theravada techniques rooted in the ancient Abhidharma – entirely traditional and valid therefore but not what our founder in China chose to emphasise, a fact that many Western teachers seem largely to have ignored. This difference is perhaps a sign of the pragmatic rather than mystical inclinations of the Chinese when compared to India. As a sole practice, samatha leads to varying depths of inner silence and ultimately the sensation-less trance basic to much Indian mental yoga. The Chan practitioner is asked not to go this far because beyond a certain point ‘insight’ is not possible.

This does not mean that samatha is not of great value to Chan practitioners. Indeed, to quieten the mind is extremely important for Westerners and is commonly the first technique to use in attempting Silent Illumination. Never the less, in entering Chan a more self-confrontational approach is clearly to be recommended as soon as possible. Presenting the WZR and our koan retreats in this way has therefore traditional support.

Whether the practitioner calms and simplifies his mental activity through samatha or by examining closely what his motivations may be, the outcome is an experience of increasing equanimity, peace and tranquillity. As we have seen (above), at a certain stage, the mind state begins to change. There is a timeless quality as, for example, when a thirty-minute sit seems to have lasted only two minutes. There may be a feeling of spaciousness as when one appears to have an awareness extending beyond the room, walls and building to the farthest horizon. Sometimes feelings of bliss may be physically experienced as if rising up the back or spine. Sometimes a total blankness appears, a deep dark stillness with no sensation at all. These experiences arise due to the dropping away of mental measurement in space and time thus giving rise to a timeless and spatially unlimited feeling coinciding with a letting go of depressive ideas limiting bliss.

The above process is termed ‘gradual” since it develops progressively and takes both time and focus. Prajna, ‘insight’, by contrast always arises suddenly, it is subitive, ‘sudden’. While there is commonly some trigger, a word, a thought, a falling tile, a passing aircraft, the change of state is immediate shifting the mind into a completely different mode. This mode is beyond exact description because the thinking mind of thought and language does not operate here. No thought, therefore no measurement, therefore no time. Although the mind state provides an immutable background condition in the manner of a mirror mirroring, the movement of the trees in the wind continues therein as a continuing present moment. There is thus a sort of complete stillness and peace and total relief from all time-based worrying.

Many such occurrences of this ‘Clarity’ are exceedingly brief, seconds or minutes. In reporting them in interview, practitioners will characteristically say, ‘I felt’. The self is still there although it has been temporally set aside, forgotten or changed into mere witnessing. I call these experiences 'Clarity’ because they are clear of karmic responding and totally anchored in the mirrored present moment. Mental time stops as awareness simply flows along in the impermanence of the world with no thought of past or future. Worldly time goes on. The ego is not active but the self is present as an observer.

A more sustained period of Clarity is called the One Mind Experience (Shifu).13 The mind is still, peaceful, quietly blissful, the environment appears pure and at peace. It is as if one is looking at an alternative reality.

While these experiences are of great value and encouraging, they are not ‘Enlightenment Experiences’ (‘No-mind’ – Shifu) deserving the Chinese name kai-wu or the Japanese names kensho or satori. Kensho is present when the same clarity erupts without any sense of the self-function being present at all. The egoless state is experienced as a startling and mysterious absence. As this fades, usually quite quickly, self-reference softly emerges again and the blissful innocence is lost in evaluations.

Experiences of ‘enlightenment’ (kai-wu, kensho) are rare although their asserted frequency seems to depend on a Teacher’s understanding of what comprises such an experience. Shifu always stressed to me the need for caution since to claim ‘enlightenment’ of an insufficient experience may harm a practitioner through subsequent faulty self-assessment. In discussing several possible cases, which we had both considered following the relevant interviews, he usually let any doubt lead him to confirm an experience as no more than ‘clarity’ or ‘one-mind’. The deep experience of self-absence rather than a mere self-forgetting is the key distinction here, and often difficult to determine. Furthermore, kensho experiences themselves vary in depth and may sometimes lead to direct experiences of the universe as ‘Buddha mind’ rather than merely ‘seeing the nature’ in ‘no-mind’. Such an experience is likely to appear following deep reflection on co-dependence in a ‘contemplation of emptiness’ (p 8) and several brief experiences of ‘no-mind’ enlightenments. This indeed seems to be the meaning of the Japanese term satori.

In assessing the nature of any such an experience, the Reverend Master Daishin Morgan of Throssel Hole Abbey once told me that he was less interested in his monks’ descriptions of experiences than in their consequences shown in changes in character. He felt sure an experience was a genuine kensho only when character changes appeared. If none appeared he let it go. Western teachers have to be aware that Western practitioners have developed an excessive concern with having these experiences as a result of the Rinzai teachings of Daisetz Suzuki early in the last century. Mistaken assumptions about personal ‘enlightenments’ can be a major cause of Zen mistakes.

Professor James Austin, the author of Zen and the Brain has attempted to construct a neurophysiological explanation of such Zen experiences based on an experience he had himself had on a London station on the way to a retreat with the Venerable nun Myokoni (Irmgard Schloegel). He writes:

“The new scene is fixed gently, not fixed on hold. The purely optical aspects of the scene are in no way different from the way they were a split second before...They are being viewed directly with all the cold, clinical detachment of a mirror as it witnesses a landscape bathed in moonlight… but there is no viewer. The scene is utterly empty, stripped of every last extension of an I-me-mine. Vanished in one second is the familiar sense that this person is viewing an ordinary city scene...not pausing to register the further paradox that no human subject is doing it...a vision of profound, implicit, perfect reality”14

It appears to have lasted in a clear intensity for less than a minute and led Austin to further insights entirely traditional in form – indeed resembling the exclamations of Master Huineng on attaining enlightenment during an interview with his teacher focussed on the Diamond Sutra. On hearing the quotation “Let the mind arise without attachment to anything!”, he exclaimed:

“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 sufficient on its own and free from change? Who would have thought that all things are the manifestation of the essence of mind?” He concluded, “For someone who does not know the essence of mind there is no use in studying Buddhism. But knowing the essence of mind, he is Buddha – a teacher of Gods and men…”15

The Venerable Myokoni accepted Austin’s account as kensho saying “I am very happy for you.” Thus, the ‘essence of mind’ has been the same for at least a thousand years.

A Master once said that the visionary Clarity basic to all these experiences can take ‘one all the way’. Indeed the basic feeling of sudden Clarity is also the fundamental quality of the kensho experience too. This means that an experience of Clarity is a kind of preliminary glimpse of enlightenment potential but not yet ‘enlightenment’ itself (kensho) for that depends on ‘self-absence’ not merely ‘self-forgetting’. Shifu has also remarked to me that someone who has experienced kensho is likely to taste partial ‘shadows’ of it again in re-appearances of moments of simple clarity.

Table 1 Sequence of Transitions in Silent Illumination

A. Normal Egoic Consciousness (1–5)

1. Everyday mind, hassling mind, wandering mind etc.

2. Zazen sitting in posture. Mind calming. Body awareness.

3. Total Body Awareness.

4. Makyo experiences. Time and space changes silence, void, bliss, disinterested love.

5. Self at Ease. One-pointedness. Vast present awareness. ‘Being present in the presence of the present’.

B. Diminished Ego Consciousness (6–7) Prajna – ‘crossing to the other shore’

  1. 6. Clarity. Mirror mind. Self-forgotten. One-mind state
  2. 7. Kai-wu, Kensho. Clarity with ego-self absent. No-mind state.


At root, Clarity is a sustained sense of the presence of the present moment. It is not simply a sharp awareness of immediate momentary sensations but, rather, a sustained state of bare awareness in which the present happening reflects. As we have seen, it has a mirroring quality. The practitioner enters a transformed state, an unmoving, un-reacting, mirror of a bare awareness in which the world moves. It is well termed the ‘essence of mind’. This ‘world’ in the mirror has the simplicity of just being itself; one might say it is ‘allowed’ to be itself. No projection of personal bias, prejudice or theoretical understanding is imposed upon it. It has the simplicity of mere presence: bird song, rustling water, the wind in the trees, an owl call. In the complete clarity of kensho the additional absence of self is apparent as a strange feeling, no-one is there. Only the un-interpreted world remains. One may well say that after discovering one’s ‘true nature’ one perceives the universal ‘Buddha nature’.

Buddha nature then is the ‘world’ seen by the subject in one flowing relationship in the state called ‘true-nature’. The sensory mind participates directly in the world process but without dualistic identification as something apart. Intellectually, one knows that vision is a perception of objects reflected in light from the sun the energy of which is focussed by the eye and interpreted by the retina and optic brain. One knows that the chemicals giving rise to smell touch the sensory nerves, which pass impulses to the brain for interpretation. The world that seems so glibly exterior and separate from ‘me’ in a dualistic relationship is actually deeply integrated with my being in a unitary pervasion. The experience of clarity and subsequently the ‘enlightenment’ of kensho is the experiential awareness of such oneness. What consciousness ‘is’ remains as mysterious as the cosmos itself.16

This then is the ‘enlightenment’ that provides the evidence for the monist perspective of Buddhist thought. Furthermore, one may argue that such a sensory world-awareness is potentially the same for all human beings once discriminatory thinking is set aside. And further, allowing for contrasts in brainpower, the seemingly always-bare awareness of higher animals may be similar. Looking at the sheep pondering one’s presence in a field in Wales, one may be seeing a being in a similar state of clarity without an ego. This is one root for the Buddhist compassion of all sentient beings.

Westerners may like an evolutionary interpretation here. Clarity may well resemble the form of sentience experienced by big-brained animals such as birds and mammals; the ones that we intuitively identify with, or have as pets with ‘whom’ we talk. The uniquely human sense of an egoic self with its capacity to create a cognitively constructed and wordy reified identity (and thus karmic conditioning, attachments, liking, aversion, personal love and hate) plausibly developed out of such a more basic awareness of simple sentience and has varied in its social expression with contrasts and developments in culture.17 18

Table 2 Sequence of Transitions in Hua-Tou Work

A. Normal Egoic Consciousness (1–5)

  1. Hua-tou introspection. Ego based reflection
  1. One pointed focussing.
  2. Intensifying ‘doubt’
  3. One-pointed mind of Great Doubt.
  4. Various relapses passing through tranquillity and one mind states


B. Diminished Egoic Consciousness. Prajna (6)

  1. Clarity etc – or Kai-wu.


• The Kai-wu by this route is commonly abrupt, emotionally dramatic and leads to deep stillness. The sequence commonly breaks into a relapse. Prajna again can arise at any stage and is facilitated rather than caused by the early ones.

Evolutionary psychologists19 are arguing that this cleverness came about through social evolution. Many primates have evolved as group living populations in relation to patterns of distribution of resources in their habitats and as protection from predation. Within this context, competition between individuals is believed to have provoked the emergence of skills for deception, insight into deception by others, alliance formation and the brainy intelligence associated within being aware of one’s personal self as an object in a social world. The individualistic, ultimately self-destructive, aggressive nature of human politics stems from this. Yet, in contrast, parental care, family and alliance formation drove the emergence of tendencies towards empathy and certain forms of altruism.20 The conflict between these forms of social being produces the highly bipolar nature of human life. Generally, many world religions favour the mutualism of altruistic compassion yet become structured as highly self-oriented institutions often willing to murder those of other faiths.

In Koan 62 in the Book of Serenity21 we have the story of a monk who asked a master “Do people these days need enlightenment?” The master replied, “Oh, it’s not that there is no enlightenment but what can be done about falling into the secondary?” The story clearly recognises a primary holistic orientation of compassionate enlightenment contrasted to the secondary condition of a discriminatory, argumentative, hassling mind. In meditation therefore, we may be evoking something of enormous psychological antiquity, plausibly even a pre-human mode of knowing and being. The clarity of ‘insight’ (prajna) appears to pre-date the ‘ignorance’ (avidya) of discriminatory intelligence!

Extended Implications, The Bodhisattva Path

We have been using English terms that hopefully may clarify the nature and function of Chan meditation (bare awareness, clarity, present in the presence of the present, one-mind state), and tried to show how they can help translate Chinese discussions of meditative practice. Yet, we have to be careful. Like all words and ideas, their very use can be a barrier to insightful practice.

Essentially, the nature of Chan insight cannot be described. All one can do is to hint at it through various forms of metaphor. Any attachment to names or ideas sustains the discriminatory mind and this is just as true for the words we have been using as to older terminologies. The experiences arising through Buddhist meditation remain as mysterious as consciousness itself. Furthermore, practitioners may come across other experiences not discussed here that seem utterly inexplicable from a scientific or Western psychological perspective – for example during certain tantric practices or the unexpected appearances of moments of clarity seemingly evoked by place and circumstance, or the presence of certain charismatic teachers. It is necessary to acknowledge mystery and the strangeness of the human mind we share. To hold opinions generates ego-based dualism and prevents insight in practice – and this is always a difficult lesson for Westerners to learn. This choice of terms is intended to enhance precision in English expression. In practice, retreatants need to find those that help them most.

Insight (prajna) carries one across ‘to the other shore’ (secondary to primary) where sensory experience and the energies expressing the Universe appear clearly in union. There is no sense of separation or duality. One sees then how one’s basic awareness is normally invaded or covered over by thoughts and feelings that express the personal concerns of practical life. The unified understanding of world-mind pervasion may be what is termed the ‘ancient mirror’ in Dogen’s writing,22 a term for ‘Buddha nature’ where ‘Buddha’ is a synonym for a cosmic awareness in humans. Dogen emphasises that to think of a practice that proceeds by stages to enlightenment is misleading. Such an idea arises from the way the mind shifts back and forth repeatedly from unitary to divided, multiple states. Enlightening insight is always potentially available; one is ‘enlightened already’. All that is needed is a clear awakening to the way basic awareness becomes ‘clouded’ through invasion by mental discrimination.

Yet, that discriminatory awareness is not in itself ‘ignorance’. It is the natural and evolved way by which the brainy physical body negotiates the competitive life of the ‘world’. ‘Ignorance’ is the absence of perceiving that this negotiation is only a mode of experiencing within a much deeper original unity of mind and nature. The ‘Bodhisattva Path’ then becomes the practice through which insight is understood and selfhood steered away from harming others and indeed the planet through greed and aggression. This is then the profound path of enlightened compassion and wisdom. As Shifu would put it, here meaning and purpose unite in a life that is the ultimate practicality of Chan.

Master! How can I understand enlightenment?

Have you had your breakfast?

Yes, Master.

Then perhaps you had better wash your bowl.


In this talk, I have attempted to provide an account of Chan practice that may be helpful to Westerners puzzled by translations of Chinese Zen literature. It is important to close with certain comments. Firstly, we have been discussing methods of practice rather than the Dharma teachings of the Buddha and the Patriarchs. There is no alteration intended here to the basic line of Shifu’s Dharma Drum lineage based in both the Linji and the Caodong schools. Secondly, we have been seeking to respond to a need for clarification especially for Western beginners, and thirdly we have noted that this is a quite natural process of re-expression present throughout the history of Chan and at the present time. Indeed, two of the main Chinese Dharma Heirs of Shifu in Taiwan are providing retreats that differ considerably from one another and from those taught in recent years by Shifu himself; one emphasising calming the mind as a prerequisite for Hua-tou exploration and the other the confrontational approaches initiated in antiquity by such great teachers as Linji in China or Hakuin in Japan.23 Adding our innovations to the mix, we may suggest that Chan teaching is highly creative at the present time and that centres such as the Dharma Drum Retreat Centre in Pinebush, New York, benefit greatly from this diversity of presentations.

These changes of course will continue. What is essential is that they never fail to express the root teachings of the Buddha. The maintenance of traditional Dharma is vital lest deviations develop that could so easily import the greed and selfish arrogance of so much of the Western dominated consumer capitalism of our present era. Both Simon Child and I are highly sensitive to the dangers of incautious, popularistic modifications to traditional practice. We remain devoted to the teachings our Shifu gave us and will continue on this path.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010. Revised, Thursday, April 1, 2010


This diagram summarises the sequences of likely transitions during retreats using Silent Illumination or Hua-tou methods. Note that both Clarity and Enlightenment experiences require the ‘subitist’ appearance of prajna insight. Moreover, this may arise at any time including non-retreat times and is usually preceded by one-pointed attention to the present moment and often some slight stimulus from the environment. The ‘gradual approach’ at the beginning of these practices thus requires non-intentional insight for their completion.

Acknowledgement: I am most grateful to Simon Child for his valued discussions with me concerning this talk in draft and for his great improvement to the diagram that summarises key themes in the text. Also to Jake Lyne for a helpful comment.


1.       Crook J. H. and D. Fontana (Eds) 1990. Space in Mind: East-West Psychology and Contemporary Buddhism. Element books. Chapters 8 and 13. Also: New Chan Forum, 38.

2.       Kwan, V. S. Y, Chin-Ming Hui and James A. McGee. 2010. What do we know about the Chinese self? Etc. Chapter 17 in Bond, M.H, (Ed) Oxford Handbook of Chinese Psychology. Oxford University Press

3.       Luo Lu 2010 Chinese well-being. Chapter 20 in the Oxford Handbook of Chinese Psychology. loc cit above.

4.       Crook, J. H. 2009. World Crisis and Buddhist Humanism. New Age Books. Delhi.

5.       Neisser, U & D. A. Jopling. (eds) 1997. The Conceptual Self in Context. Cambridge U. P. See also The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Psychology. 2010. loc cit

6. Victoria, B. A. 1997. Zen at War. Weatherhill. New York. Tokyo.

7. Luo Lu 2010 Chinese Well-being. Chapter 20 in the Oxford Handbook of Chinese Psychology. loc cit above

8. Sheng yen 2009 Shattering the Great Doubt. Shambhala

9. See Retreat Reports. New Chan Forum 40.

10. Sheng yen. 2009 Shattering the Great Doubt. Shambhala

11. See: Sheng yen. In press. Things pertaining to Bodhi. Shambhala. p 23-24

12. See Sheng yen and D. Stevenson. 2001 Hoofprint of the Ox. Oxford. p 187.

13. Sheng Yen Chan Master. 2004. Song of Mind. Shambhala. See p 88

14. Austin, J. 1999. Zen and the Brain. MIT Press

15. Wong Mou-Lam 1953. The Sutra of Wei Lang. Luzac

16. In a curious way the wholeness of the mind-world relationship in Chan recalls the ancient, more dualistic Islamic interpretations of world-mind association in al-Faradi and Avicenna that came into European thought via Albert the Great and were lost in Aquinas. (See: Kenny, A. 2005. Medieval Philosophy. A new History of Western Philosophy. Vol 2. Oxford University Press).

17. Crook, J.H. 1980. The Evolution of Human Consciousness. Clarenden Press. Oxford.

18. Crook, J.H. 2007. Shamans, Yogins and Indigenous psychologies. Chapter 35 in Dunbar R.I.M and L. Barrett (eds) 2007. Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Oxford.

19. This newly named science has developed from merging studies of Animal Behaviour (Ethology) and Comparative Psychology with fresh orientations in Social Anthropology. See: Dunbar, R. I. M. & Louise Barrett. (Eds). 2007. Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Oxford.

20. Dunbar, R. I. M 1996. Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. Faber & Faber.

21. Cleary, T. 1990. Book of Serenity. One hundred Zen dialogues. Lindisfarne Press

22. Dogen Zenji. (Translations by Kosen Nishiyama) 1983. Kokyo. P 45-59. In Shobogenzo. Vol 3. Nakayama Shobo.

23. See Guo Ru Fa shi. 2010. Comparing the methods: Huatou and Silent Illumination. Chan Magazine.

Spring 2010


When I was fourteen and safely at boarding school in Dorset, David was plummeting out of the sky on a parachute descending into a fierce and disastrous conflict in France. Several years older than I, this difference underlined the contrast in our lives. His wartime experiences were heroic in the ways of war but David wrote with humility about them all. His wartime autobiography1 tells us so much about his character. His parents always wanted him to be intelligent, scientific and brave and he was to be all those things. Few of us have had the experience of visiting a camp of Hitler Youths in the 30s and gone on to help win the war against them! Doctor, socialist, humanist adventurer, psychiatrist not without a warm self-doubt, David was a striking personality.

I first met this large, friendly almost boisterous man at a conference in Dartington where we began to share our spiritual interests. David was a sceptical humanist but also a Quaker with a characteristically wide vision of spirituality. He had come out of a personal crisis partly though some experiences of bliss and insight that he recognised as characteristically ‘Zen’. This was to bring him into ‘sitting’ with us on our Chinese Zen retreats at the Maenllwyd in Wales.

I have many happy memories of David. His warm, honest character and his deep concern with spirituality of an essentially practical kind made him a great companion in talking about such things. He wrote an account of his experiences for our journal2 and joined us on a retreat in the lighthouse on Lundy Island where I recall the immense fun of cooking with him in the tiny kitchen there. He loved the island and always wanted us to go there again.

At the Maenllwyd, our local farmer with a lamb that had broken a leg tendon once challenged his surgical skill. Together with another doctor, he sowed it up and soon had it walking about again. David dug drains with enthusiasm and brought a lightness to what we were doing that many appreciated. He was one of the ‘toughies’ who appreciated the relatively primitive condition of the old farmhouse of those early days.

I have been sad not to see David more in recent years but we corresponded from time to time and I know his involvement in Zen meant a lot to him. Many of us fellow practitioners remember him with happiness and miss him and his presence amongst us with sadness.


1. Clark. David H. 1995. Descent into Conflict. A Doctors’ War. The Book Guild. Lewes.

2. Clark. David H. 1992. Transcendence in my life. New Chan Forum 4. Spring issue.


When Sally told me about her medical diagnosis we were together at the International Mindfulness Meeting in Bristol. I was shocked but also struck by the extraordinarily calm way in which Sally was responding to this dreadful news. Strangely, we had just listened to Jean-Marc Mantel’s talk about moment-to-moment awareness and, in her own way, this was to be Sally’s profound response to her illness. I have been deeply moved and touched by her manner of dying, deeply marked by Chan understanding all the way to the end.

Sally gave much of herself to helping Buddhist practitioners on their way, not only by becoming a valued group leader in Bristol but perhaps most importantly through her work in stabilising the NBO and bringing it through to an effectively organised and functional institution. All British Buddhist practitioners are deeply in debt to her for her wise, diplomatic and thoughtful management. Sally was professionally a well-loved doctor in a difficult area of Bristol. Her broad-based medical practice included much attention to the social and personal problems of her patients and included special thought concerning the more unfortunate people of that tough district, including the often-abused street women of the city.

Yet, it was her more personal understanding of Chan that became so notable in her last months. Sally was always a generous, thoughtful person, devoted to her work and willing to give advice and help and she had found herself suddenly confronted with a dire illness. From the beginning, she clearly realised the pain that her possible death would cause others and used her understanding of Chan to empower great courage in facing it. She was able to use her faith in the Dharma to support her own spirit of calm endurance and at the same time respond to the needs of others grieving around her.

For example, on one occasion, she was talking with Hughie who came to visit her. As she told him about her illness, Hughie felt overwhelmed by the sadness of so early a death. As he was about to weep, Sally leaned forward and said “But Hughie – you must know that life is perfect”.

Such a remark in such a circumstance is only possible from a spontaneous practitioner for whom immediate sensitive compassion is as important as wisdom. One cannot help but be reminded of the Buddha’s own compassionate understanding as Ananda grieved his potential going; “Ananda, have you not learned that all compounded things must pass away?”

Sally maintained her inner peace in spite of the difficulties of her treatment and finally decided to go her way rather than endure further chemotherapy. She took this decision with calm understanding and was quite annoyed at the slowness of her gradual passing that followed. She was anxious to get “on the train” and be on her way. Somehow, this was a response quite typical of her resolute and practical personality.

The manner of her passing is inspirational for us, for we all have to face our own departure one day. On this occasion, therefore I want to say how grateful I am to Sally for all she has given us – and especially for the wisdom and compassion of her last days. A profound practitioner has gone on her journey. We can all be happy and grateful for the example she has given us.