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The Ch'an Training
From the Hsu Yun Ho Shang Fa Hui
Tr. Lu K'uan Yu (Charles Luk)



(Dear friends,) you have been coming frequently to ask for my instruction and I really feel ashamed (of my incompetence). (Every day) from morning to evening, you have been all hard at work splitting fire-wood, tilling the fields, moving earth and carrying bricks. In spite of this, you still remember your religious duties; this earnestness of yours does indeed warm the heart of other people. I, Hsu Yun, feel really ashamed of my incompetence in religion and lack of virtue. I am not qualified to give instruction and can only pick up a few sentences left behind by the ancients in reply to your questions.


There are many kinds of method but I will deal briefly with them.


(1) Firm belief in the (law of) causality

Whoever One may be, especially if striving to perform one's religious duty, one should believe firmly in the law of causality. If one lacks this belief and does whatever one likes, not only will one fail in the performance of religious duty, but also there will be no escape from this law (of causality) even in the three unhappy ways.[1] An ancient master said: 'If one wishes to know the causes formed in a previous life, one can find them in how one fares in the present life; if one wishes to know the effects in the next life, one can find them in one's deeds in the present life.' He also said: 'The karma of our deeds will never be wiped out even after hundreds and thousands of aeons (but) as soon as conditions become ripe, we will have to bear the effects ourselves.' The Surangama Sutra says: 'If the causal ground is not a true one, the ripening (fruit) will be distorted' Therefore, when one sows a good cause, one will reap a good fruit (and) when one sows an evil cause, one will reap an evil fruit; when one sows melon (seeds) one will gather melons (and) when one sows beans, one will gather beans. This is the plain truth. As I am talking about the law of causality, I will tell you two stories to illustrate it.

The first story is about the massacre of the Sakya clansmen by the Crystal King (Virudhaka).[2] Before the advent of Sakyamuni Buddha, there was near Kapila town a village inhabited by fishermen, and in it was a big pond. It happened that because of a great drought, the pond ran dry and all the fish were caught and eaten by the villagers. The last fish taken was a big one and before it was killed, a boy who never ate fish, played with it and thrice knocked its head. Later, after Sakyamuni Buddha's appearance in this world, King Prasenajit[3] who believed in the Buddha-dharma, married a Sakya girl who then gave birth to a prince called Crsytal. When he was young, Crystal had his schooling in Kapila which was then inhabited by the Sakya clansmen. One day while playing, the boy ascended to the Buddha's seat and was reprimanded by others who dragged him down. The boy cherished a grudge against the men and when he became king, he led his soldiers to attack Kapila, killing all its inhabitants. At the same time, the Buddha suffered from a headache which lasted three days. When His disciples asked Him to rescue the poor inhabitants, the Buddha replied that a fixed Karma could not be changed. By means of his miraculous powers, Maudgalyayana[4] rescued five hundred Sakya clansmen and thought he could give them refuge in his own bowl which was raised up in the air. When the bowl was brought down, all the men had been turned into blood. When asked by His chief disciples, the Buddha related the story (kung an) of the villagers who in days gone by had killed all the fish (in their pond); King Crystal had been the big fish and his soldiers the other fish in the pond; the inhabitants of Kapila who were now killed had been those who ate the fish; and the Buddha Himself had been the boy who thrice knocked the head of the big fish. (Karma was) now causing Him to suffer from a headache for three days in retribution for his previous act. Since there colud be no escape from the effects of a fixed Karma, the five hundred Sakya clansmen, although rescued by Maudgalyayana, shared the same fate. Later, King Crystal was reborn in a hell. (As cause produces effect which in turn becomes a new cause) the retribution (theory) is inexhaustible. The law of causality is really very dreadful.

The second story is that of (Ch'an master) Pai Chang who liberated a wild fox.[5] One day, after a Ch'an meeting, although all his disciples had retired, the old master Pai Chang noticed an elderly man who remained behind. Pai Chang asked the man what he was doing and he replied: 'I am not a human being but the spirit of a wild fox. In my previous life, I was the head-monk of this place. One day, a monk asked me, "Does a man practicing self-cultivation, still become involved in the (theory of) retribution?" I replied, "No, he is free from the (theory of) retribution." For this (reply) alone, I got involved in retribution and have now been the spirit of a wild fox for five hundred years, and am still unable to get away from it. Will the master be compassionate enough to enlighten me on all this?' Pai Chang said to the old man: 'Ask me the same question (and I will explain it to you).' The man then said to the master: 'I wish to ask the master this: Does one who practices self cultivation still get involved in the (theory of) retribution?' Pai Chang replied: 'He is not blind to cause and effect.' Thereupon, the old man was greatly awakened; he prostrated himself before the master to thank him and said: 'I am indebted to you for your (appropriate) reply to the question and am now liberated from the fox's body.[6] I live in a (small) grotto on the mountain behind and hope you will grant me the usual rites for a dead monk.' The following day, Pai Chang went to a mountain behind (his monastery), where in a (small) grotto he probed the ground with his staff and discovered a dead fox for whom the usual funeral rites for a dead monk were held.

(Dear) friends, after listening to these two stories, you will realize that the law of causality is indeed a dreadful (thing). Even after His attainment of Buddhahood, the Buddha still suffered a headache in retribution (for His former act). Retribution is infallible and fixed karma is inescapable. So we should always be heedful of all this and should be very careful about creating (new) causes.

(2) Strict observance if the rules of discipline (commandment)

In striving to perform one's religious duty, the first thing is to observe the rules of discipline. For discipline is the fundamental of the Supreme Bodhi; discipline begets immutability and immutability begets wisdom. There is no such thing as self-cultivation without observance of the rules of discipline. The Surangama Sutra which lists four kinds of purity, clearly teaches us that cultivation of Samadhi (-mind) without observance of the rules of discipline, will not wipe out the dust (impurities). Even if there be manifestation of much knowledge with dhyana, this also will cause a fall into (the realm of) maras (evil demons) and heretics. Therefore, we know that observance of the rules of discipline is very important. A man observing them is supported and protected by dragon-kings and devas, and respected and feared by maras and heretics. A man breaking the rules of discipline is called a big robber by the ghosts who make a clean sweep of even his footprints. Formerly, in Kubhana state (Kashmir), there was nearby a monastery a poisonous dragon which frequently played havoc in the region. (In the monastery) five hundred arhats gathered together but failed to drive away the dragon with their collective power of Dhyana-samadhi. Later, a monk came (to the monastery) where he did not enter into Dhyana-samadhi; he merely said to the poisonous dragon: 'Will the wise and virtuous one leave this place and go to some distant one.' Thereupon, the poisonous dragon fled to a distant place. When asked by the arhats what miraculous power he had used to drive away the dragon, the monk replied: 'I did not use the power of Dhyana-samadhi; I am only very careful about keeping the rules of discipline and I observe a minor one with the same care as a major one.' So, we can see that the collective power of five hundred arhats' Dhyana--samadhi cannot compare with a monk's strict observance of the rules of discipline.
If you (retort and) ask me (why) the Sixth Patriarch said:


'Why should discipline be observed if the mind is (already) impartial?
Why should straightforward men practice Ch'an ?'[7]

I will ask you back this question: 'Is your mind already impartial and straightforward; if the (lady) Ch'ang O came down from the moon[8] with her naked body and embraced you in her arms, would your heart remain undisturbed; and if someone without any reason insults and beats you, will you not give rise to feelings of anger and resentment? Can you refrain from differentiating between enmity and affection, between hate and love, between self and other, and between right and wrong? If you can do all this, then you can open your mouth widely to talk, otherwise it is useless to tell a deliberate lie.'

(3) A firm faith

A firm believing mind is the fundamental of one's training for performing one's religious duty, because faith is the mother (or begetter) of the beginning (or source) of right doctrine, and because without faith, no good will derive therefrom. If we want to be liberated from (the round of) births and deaths, we must first have a firm believing mind. The Buddha said that all living beings on earth had (inherent in them) the meritorious Tathagata wisdom which they could not realize solely because of their false thinking and grasping. He also expounded all kinds of Dharma doors (to enlightenment) to cure (all kinds of) ailments from which living beings suffered. We should, therefore, believe that his words are not false and that all living beings can attain Buddhahood. But why have we failed to attain Buddhahood? It is because we have not gone into training according to the (correct) method. For example, we believe and know that bean curd can be made with soybean but if we do not start making it, soybean cannot turn into bean curd (for us). Now assuming that soybean is used for making bean curd, we shall still fail to make it if we do not know how to mix it with gypsum. If we know the method, we will grind the soybean (put the powder in water), boil it, take out the bean grounds and add a suitable quantity of gypsum powder; thus we will certainly get bean curd. Likewise, in the performance of our religious duty, Buddhahood will be unattainable not only because of lack of training, but also because of training not in conformity with the (correct) method. If our self-cultivation is practiced according to the (correct) method, without either backsliding or regret, we are bound to attain Buddhahood.

Therefore, we should firmly believe that fundamentally we are Buddhas, we should also firmly believe that self-cultivation performed according to the (correct) method is bound to result in the attainment of Buddha-hood. Master Yung Chia said (in his Song of Enlightenment):


'When the real is attained, neither ego nor dharma exist,
And in a moment the avici karma[9] is eradicated.
If knowingly I lie to deceive living beings, my tongue
Will be pulled out for aeons uncountable as dust and sand.'[10]

The old master was very compassionate and took this boundless vow to urge those coming after him to develop a firm believing mind.

(4) Adoption of the method of training

After one has developed a firm faith, one should choose a Dharma door (to enlightenment) for one's training. One should never change it, and when one's choice has been made, either for repetition of the Buddha's name, or for holding a mantra, or for Ch'an training, one should stick to it for ever without backsliding and regret. If today the method does not prove successful, tomorrow it shall be continued; if this year it does not prove successful, next year it shall be continued; and if in the present lifetime it does not prove successful, it shall be continued in the next life. The old master Kuei Shan said: 'If one practices it in each succeeding reincarnation, the Buddha-stage can be expected.' There are some people who are irresolute in their decisions; today after hearing a learned man praise the repetition of Buddha's name, they decide to repeat it for a couple of days and tomorrow, after hearing another learned man praise Ch'an training, they will try it for another two days. If they like to play in this manner, they will go on doing so until their death without succeeding in getting any result. Is it not a pity?


Athough there are many Dharma doors (to enlightenment), the Buddha, Patriarchs and Ancestors[11] were agreed that the Ch'an training was the unsurpassed wonderful door. In the Surangama assembly, the Buddha ordered Manjusri to choose between the (various modes of) complete enlightenment, and (he chose) Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva's (method) of using the faculty of hearing, as the best. When we turn back the hearing to hear our self-nature, this is (one of the methods of) Ch'an training. This place is a Ch'an hall in which we should discuss this Ch'an training.


Our daily activities are performed within the truth itself. Is there a place that is not a Bodhimandala?[12] Fundamentally a Ch'an hall is out of place; moreover Ch'an does not mean sitting (in meditation). The so-called Ch'an hall and the so-called Ch'an sitting are only provided for people (who encounter) insurmountable obstructions (of their own) and who are of shallow wisdom in this period of decadence (of the Dharma).

When one sits in this training, one's body and mind should be well controlled. If they are not well controlled a small harm will be illness and a great harm will be entanglement with the demon, which is most regrettable. In the Ch'an hall, when incense sticks are burned for your walking or sitting, the aim is to ensure the control of body and mind. Besides this, there are many ways to control body and mind, but I will deal briefly with the essential ones.

When sitting in Ch'an meditation, the correct position is the natural one. The waist should not be pushed forward, for to do so is to pull upward the inner heat with the result that after the sitting, there will be tears, bad breath, uneasy respiration, loss of appetite and even vomiting of blood. Neither should the waist be drawn backward with dropped head, for this can easily cause dullness. As soon as dullness is felt, the meditator should open his eyes wide, pull up his waist and gently shake his buttocks, and dullness will disappear automatically.

If the training is undergone in hot haste, one will feel a certain annoying dryness in the chest. In this case, it will be advisable to stop the training for the time a half-inch of the incense stick takes to burn, and resume when one feels at ease again. If one does not proceed in this manner, one will, as time goes on, develop a hot and excitable character, and in the worst case, one may thereby become insane or get entangled with demons.

When the Ch'an sitting (in meditation) becomes effective, there will be (mental) states which are too many to enumerate, but if you do not cling to them, they will not hinder you. This is just what the proverb says: 'Don't wonder at the wonderful and the wonderful will be in full retreat.' Even if you see evil spirits of all kinds coming to disturb you, you should take no notice of them and you should not be afraid of them. Even if Sakyamuni Buddha comes to lay His hand on your head[13] and prophesies (your future Buddhahood) you should not take any notice of all this and should not be delighted by it. The Surangama Sutra says: 'A perfect state is that in which the mind is undisturbed by the saintly; an interpretation of the saintly is entanglement with all demons.'


How should one start the (Ch'an) training? In the Surangama assembly, Arya Ajnatakaundinya talked about the two words 'Foreign Dust'[14] and this is just where we should begin our training. He said: 'For instance, a traveler stops at an inn where he passes the night or takes his meal, and as soon as he has done so, he packs and continues his journey, because he has no time to stay longer. As for the host (of the inn), he has nowhere to go. My deduction is that the one who does not stay is the guest and the one who does stay is the host. Therefore, a thing is foreign when it does not stay. Again in a clear sky, when the sun rises and sunlight enters (the house) through an opening, the dust is seen moving in the ray of light whereas the empty space is unmoving. Therefore, that which is still is voidness and that which moves is dust.'

Foreign dust illustrates false thinking, and voidness illustrates self-nature, that is the permanent host who does not follow the guest in the latter's coming and going. This serves to illustrate the eternal (unmoving) self-nature which does not follow false thinking in its sudden rise and fall. Therefore, it is said: 'if one is unmindful of all things, one will meet with no inconvenience when surrounded by all things.' By dust which moves of itself and does not inconvenience voidness which is cleafly still, one means that false thinking rises and falls by itself and does not hinder the self-nature which is immutable in its Bhutatathata (suchness, thatness) condition. This is the meaning of the saying: 'If the mind does not arise, all things are blameless.'

 (The meaning of) the above word 'foreign' is coarse and (that of) 'dust' is fine. Beginners should dearly understand (the difference between) 'host' and 'guest' and will thus not be 'drifted about' by false thinking. By advancing further, they win be clear about 'voidness' and 'dust' and thus will experience no inconvenience from false thinking. It is said: 'when (false thinking) is known, there will be no harm.' If you inquire carefully into and understand all this, over half of what the training means will become quite clear to you.


In ancient times, the Patriarchs and Ancestors directly pointed at the mind for realization of self-nature and attainment of Buddhahood. like Bodhidharma who 'quietened the mind' and the Sixth Patriarch who only talked about 'perception of self-nature', all of them just advocated the outright cognizance (of it) without any more ado. They did not advocate looking into a hua t'ou, but later they discovered that men were becoming unreliable, were not of dogged determination, indulged in playing tricks and boasted of their possession of precious gems which really belonged to others. For this reason, these ancestors were compelled to set up their own sects, each with its own devices; hence, the hua t'ou technique.

There are many hua t'o us, such as: 'All things are returnable to One, to what is (that) One returnable?'[15] 'Before you were born, what was your real face?'[16] but the hua t'ou: 'Who is repeating Buddha's name?' is widely in use (today).

What is hua t'ou? (lit. word-head). Word is the spoken word and head is that which precedes word. For instance, when one says 'Amitabha Buddha', this is a word. Before it is said it is a hua t'ou (or ante-word). That which is called a hua t'ou is the moment before a thought arises. As soon as a thought arises, it becomes a hua wei (lit. word-tail). The moment before a thought arises is called 'the un-born'. That void which is neither disturbed nor dull, and neither still nor (one-sided) is called 'the unending'. The unremitting turning of the light inwards on oneself, instant after instant, and exclusive of all other things, is called 'looking into the hua t'ou' or 'taking care of the hua t'ou'.

When one  looks into a hua t'ou, the most important thing is to give rise to a doubt. Doubt is the crutch of hua t'ou.[17] For instance, when one is asked: 'Who is repeating Buddha's name?' everybody knows that he himself repeats it, but is it repeated by the mouth or by the mind? If the mouth repeats it, why does not it do so when one sleeps? If the mind repeats it, what does the mind look like? As mind is intangible, one is not clear about it. Consequently some slight feeling of doubt arises about 'WHO'. This doubt should not be coarse; the finer it is, the better. At all times and in all places, this doubt alone should be looked into unremittingly, like an ever-flowing stream, without giving rise to a second thought. If this doubt persists, do not try to shake it; if it ceases to exist, one should gently give rise to it again. Beginners will find the hua t'ou more effective in some still place than amidst disturbance. However, one should not give rise to a discriminating mind; one should remain indifferent to either the effectiveness or ineffectiveness (of the hua t'ou) and one should take no notice of either stillness or disturbance. Thus, one should work at the training with singleness of mind.

 (In the hua t'ou): 'Who is repeating the Buddha's name?' emphasis should be laid upon the word 'Who', the other words serving only to give a general idea of the whole sentence. For instance (in the questions): 'Who is wearing this robe and eating rice?', 'Who is going to stool and is urinating?', 'Who is putting an end to ignorance?', and 'Who is able to know and feel?', as soon as one lays emphasis upon (the word) 'Who', while one is walking or standing, sitting or reclining, one will be able to give rise to a doubt without difficulty and without having to use one's faculty of thought to think and discriminate. Consequently the word 'Who' of the hua t'ou is a wonderful technique in Ch'an training. However, one should not repeat the word 'Who' or the sentence 'Who is repeating the Buddha's name?' like (adherents of the Pure Land School) who repeat the Buddha's name. Neither should one set one's thinking and discriminating mind on searching for him who repeats the Buddha's name. There are some people who unremittingly repeat the sentence: 'Who is repeating the Buddha's name?'; it would be far better merely to repeat Amitabha Buddha's name (as do followers of the Pure Land School) for this will give greater merits. There are others who indulge in thinking of a lot of things and seek after everything here and there, and call this the rising of a doubt; they do not know that the more they think, the more their false thinking will increase, just like someone who wants to ascend but is really descending. You should know all this.

Usually beginners give rise to a doubt which is very coarse; it is apt to stop abruptly and to continue again, and seems suddenly familiar and suddenly unfamiliar. This is (certainly) not doubt and can only be their thinking (process). When the mad (wandering) mind has gradually been brought under control, one will be able to apply the brake on the thinking process, and only then can this be called 'looking into' (a hua t'ou). Furthermore, little by little, one will gain experience in the training and then, there will be no need to give rise to the doubt which will rise of itself automatically. In reality, at the beginning, there is no effective training at all as there is only (an effort) to put an end to false thinking. When real doubt rises of itself, this can be called true training. This is the moment when one reaches a 'strategic gateway' where it is easy to go out of one's way (as follows).

Firstly, there is the moment when one will experience utter purity and boundless ease[18] and if one fails to be aware of and look into the same, one will slip into a state of dullness. If a learned teacher is present, he will immediately see clearly that the student is in such a state and will strike the meditator with the (usual) flat stick, thus clearing away the confusing dullness; a great many are thereby awakened to the truth.[19]

Secondly, when the state of purity and emptiness appears, if the doubt ceases to exist, this is the unrecordable state[20] in which the meditator is likened to one sitting on a withered tree in a grotto, or to soaking stones with water.[21] When one reaches this state, one should arouse (the doubt) to be immediately followed by one's awareness and contemplation (of this state). Awareness (of this state) is freedom from illusion; this is wisdom. Contemplation (of this state) wipes out confusion; this is imperturbability. This singleness of mind will be thoroughly still and shining, in its imperturbable absoluteness, spiritual clearness and thorough understanding, like the continuous smoke of a solitary fire. When one reaches this stage, one should be provided with a diamond eye[22] and should refrain from giving rise to anything else, as if one does, one will (simply) add another head upon one's head.[23]

Formerly, when a monk asked (Master) Chao Chou: 'what should one do when there is not a thing to bring with self?' Chao Chou replied: 'Lay it down.' The monk said: 'What shall I lay down when I do not bring a thing with me?' Chao Chon replied: 'If you cannot lay it down, carry it away.'[24] This is exactly the stage (above mentioned) which is like that of a drinker of water who alone knows whether it is cold or warm. This cannot be expressed in words and speeches, and one who reaches this stage will clearly know it. As to one who has not reached it, it will be useless to tell him about it. This is what the (following) lines mean:


'When you meet a fencing master, show to him your sword.
     Do not give your poem to a man who's not a poet.'[25]



Someone may ask: 'How can Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva's "method of turning inward the hearing to hear the self-nature" be regarded as Ch'an training?' I have just talked about looking into the hua t'ou; it means that you should unremittingly and one-pointedly turn the light inwards on 'that which is not born and does not die' which is the hua t'ou. To turn inwards one's hearing to hear the self-nature means also that you should unremittingly and one-pointedly turn inwards your (faculty of) hearing to hear the self-nature. 'To turn inwards' is 'to turn back'. 'That which is not born and does not die' is nothing but the self-nature. When hearing and looking follow sound and form in the worldly stream, hearing does not go beyond sound and looking does not go beyond form (appearance), with the obvious differentiation. However, when going against the mundane stream, the meditation is turned inwards to contemplate the self-nature. When 'hearing' and 'looking' are no longer in pursuit of sound and appearance, they become fundamentally pure and enlightening and do not differ from each other. We should know that what we call 'looking into the hua t'ou' and 'turning inwards the hearing to hear the self-nature' cannot be effected by means of the eye to look or the ear to hear. If eye and ear are so used, there will be pursuit after sound and form with the result that one will be turned by things (i.e. externals); this is called 'surrender to the (mundane) stream'.[26] If there is singleness of thought abiding in that 'which is not born and does not die', without pursuing sound and form, this is 'going against the stream'; this is called 'looking into the hua t'ou' or 'turning inwards the hearing to hear the self-nature'.


In the Ch'an training, one should be in earnest in one's desire to leave the realm of birth and death, and develop a long enduring mind (in one's striving). If the mind is not earnest it will be impossible to give rise to the doubt, and the striving will be ineffective. Lack of a long enduring mind will result in laziness and the training will not be continuous. Just develop a long enduring mind and the doubt will rise of itself. When doubt rises trouble (klesa) will come to an end of itself. As the ripe moment comes (it will be like) running water which will form a channel.[28]

I will now tell you a story I personally witnessed. In the year K'eng Tsu (1900), when eight world powers sent their expeditionary forces to Peking (after the Boxer rebellion), I followed Emperor Kuang Hsu and Empress Dowager Tz'u Hsi when they fled from the capital. We had to hurry towards Shen Hsi (Shensi) province; each day we walked several tens of miles, and for several days we had no rice to eat. On the road, a peasant offered some creepers of sweet potato[29] to the (hungry) emperor, who found them savory and asked the man what they were. You can imagine that when the emperor who used to put on airs and had an awe-inspiring reputation, had to run some distance he became very hungry. When he ate creepers of sweet potato, he gave up all his airs and awe-inspiring attitude. Why did he walk on foot, become hungry and lay down everything? Because the allied forces wanted his life and he had only one thought, that of running for his life. Later, when peace had been concluded, he returned to the capital, putting on once more his airs with his awe-inspiring reputation. Again he would no longer walk in the street and did not feel hungry. If he did not find some food savory, once more he could not swallow it. Why was he (again) unable to lay down every-thing now? Because the allied forces no longer wanted his life and because his mind was not set on escaping. If he now applied the same mind (previously) set on running for his life to perform his religious duty, was there anything he could not do? This was due to the fact that he did not have a long enduring mind, and as soon as favorable conditions prevailed, his former habits appeared again.

Dear friends, the murderous demon of impermanence is constantly looking for our lives and will never agree to conclude peace with us! Let us hastily develop a long enduring mind to get out of birth and death. Master Yuan Miao of Kao Feng said: 'If one sets a time limit for success in the Ch'an training, one should act like a man who has fallen to the bottom of a pit one thousand chang deep.[30] His thousand and ten-thousand thoughts are reduced to a single idea on how to escape from the pit. He keeps it up from morning to evening and from evening (to the following) morning, and has no other thought. If he trains in this way and does not realize the truth in three, five or seven days, I shall be guilty of a verbal sin for which I shall fall into the hell where tongues are pulled out.' The old master was earnest in his great mercy and being apprehensive that we would not develop a long enduring mind, he took this great vow to guarantee (our successes).


There is difficulty and easiness in the Ch'an training, both for beginners and for old practicers.


The most common defects of a beginner lie in his inability to lay down his habits of false thinking; of (self-indulgence in) ignorance caused by pride and jealousy; of(self-inflicted) obstructions caused by concupiscence, anger, stupidity and love; of laziness and gluttony; and of (attachment to) right and wrong, to selfness and otherness. With a belly (breast) filled with all the above (defects), how can he be responsive to the truth? Others are young gentlemen[31] who are unable to get rid of their habits and are incapable of the least condescension and of enduring the smallest trouble; how can they undergo the training in performance of their religious duties? They never think of our original teacher, Sakyamuni Buddha, and of His standing when He left home. Some people who know a little literature, use their knowledge of it to interpret the ancients' sayings, boast of their unequalled abilities and regard themselves as superiors.[32] When seriously ill, they cannot bear their sufferings with patience. When they are about to die, they lose their heads and realize that their usual knowledge is useless. Thus their repentance will be tardy.

Some are serious in their religious duties but do not know where to begin their training. Others are afraid of false thinking and are unable to put an end to it. So they worry about it all day long and blame their karmic obstructions for it, thus falling away in their religious enthusiasm. Some want to resist false thinking to the death by angrily clenching their fists to keep up their spirits and by thrusting out their chests and widely opening their eyes as if there is really something very important to do. They want to fight to a finish against their false thinking; not only will they fail to drive it away but they will thereby vomit blood or become insane. There are people who are afraid of falling into voidness but they do not know they are thus giving rise to the 'demon'. Consequently, they can neither wipe out voidness nor attain awakening. There are those who set their minds on the quest of awakening and who do not know that to seek awakening and to desire Buddhahood are nothing but a great falsehood; they do not know that gravel cannot be turned into rice and they will thus wait until the year of the donkey for their awakening.[33]

There are (also) those who can manage to sit (in meditation) during the time one or two incense sticks take to burn and thereby experience some joy, but this is only likened to the blind black tortoise which stretched its head through the hole of a floating log.[34] It is just a rare chance and not (the result of) true training. Moreover, the demon of joy has already slipped into their minds. There are cases of the enjoyable state of purity and cleanness realizable in stillness but not realizable in disturbance and for this reason meditators avoid disturbing conditions and look for quiet places. They do not realize that they have already agreed to become servants of the demon of both stillness and disturbance.[35]

There are many cases like the above. It is really difficult for beginners to know the correct method of training; awareness without contemplation will lead to confusion and instability, and contemplation without awareness will result in immersion in stagnant water.


Although the training seems difficult, it becomes very easy once its method is known. Where does easiness lie for beginners? There is nothing ingenious in it because it lies in 'laying down'. Laying down what? (The burden of) distress (klesa) caused by ignorance. How does one lay it down? You have all been at the bedside of a dead man. If you try to scold him a few times, he will not be excited. If you give him a few strokes of the staff he will not strike back. Formerly he indulged in ignorance but now he cannot do so any more. Formerly he longed for reputation and wealth but now he no longer wants it. Formerly he was contaminated by habits but now he is free from them. Now he does not make distinctions and lays down everything. Dear friends, please look at all this. When we have breathed our last, this physical body of ours will become a corpse. Because we cherish this body, we are unable to lay down everything, with the resultant creation of self and other, right and wrong, like and dislike, and acceptance and rejection. If we only regard this body as a corpse, we will not cherish it and will certainly not consider it as ours. (If so) is there anything we cannot lay down?

We only have to lay down everything, day and night, no matter whether we walk, stand, sit or recline, in the midst of either stillness or disturbance, and whether busy or not; throughout our bodies, within and without, there should be only a doubt, a uniform, harmonizing and continuous doubt, unmixed with any other thought, in other words, a hua t'ou which is likened to a long sword leaning against the sky, which we will use to cut down a demon or Buddha should either appear. Thus we will not fear false thinking; who then will disturb us; who will distinguish between disturbance and stillness and who will cling to existence and non-existence? If there be fear of false thinking, this fear will increase false thinking. If there be awareness of purity, this purity will immediately be impure. If there be fear of falling into non-existence, there will immediately be a fall into existence. If there be desire to attain Buddhahood, there will immediately be a fall into the way of demons. (For this reason) it is said: 'The carrying of water and fetching of firewood are nothing but the wonderful Truth. The hoeing of fields and the cultivation of soil are entirely ch'an potentialities.' This does not mean that only the crossing of legs for sitting in meditation can be regarded as Ch'an training in the performance of one's religious duty.


Where does difficulty lie for an old practicer? In his training, when his doubt has become genuinely real, his awareness and contemplation are still linked with the (realm) of birth and death, and lack of awareness and contemplation is (the cause of) his fall into (the realm of) non-existence. It is already difficult to reach these stages, but there are many who are unable to get beyond them, and are content to stand on the top of a hundred-foot pole without knowing how to take a step forward. Others who, after reaching these stages, are able to achieve in the stillness some wisdom which enables them to understand a few kung ans left behind by the ancients; they also lay down the doubt, thinking they have attained a thorough awakening, and compose poems and gathas, twinkle their eyes and raise their eyebrows, calling themselves enlightened; they do not know that they are servants of the demon.[36]

There are also those who misunderstand the meaning of Bodhidharma's (words:)

'Put an end to the formation of all causes without, and have no panting heart within; then with a mind like a wall,[37] you will be able to enter the Truth'

and the Sixth Patriarch's (words:)

'Do not think of either good or evil; at this very instant, what is the Venerable Hui Ming's real face?'[38]

They think that sitting with crossed legs like withered logs in a grotto is the best Pattern. These people mistake an illusion-city for a place of precious things,[39] and take a foreign land for their native village. The story of the old lady burning the hut serves to scold these (logs of) dead wood.[40]


Where does easiness lie for old practicers? It lies only in the absence of self-satisfaction and the continuation of the close and uninterrupted (Ch'an) training , the closeness should be much closer, the continuance much more continuous and the subtleness much more subtle. When the ripe moment comes, the bottom of the barrel will drop off of itself;[41] otherwise one will have to call on enlightened masters who will help one to pull out (the remaining) nail or stake (of obstruction).

Master Han Shan's Song is:[42]


High on a mountain peak[43]
Only boundless space is seen.[44]
How to sit in meditation, no one knows.[45]
The solitary moon shines o'er the icy pool,[46]
But in the pool there is no moon;[47]
The moon is in the night-blue sky.[48]
This song is chanted now,
(But) there's no Ch'an in the song.[49]

The first two lines show that that which is truly eternal is solitary and does not belong to anything else, and that it shines brightly over the world without encountering any obstruction. The following (third) line shows the wonderful body of Bhutatathata[50] which worldly men do not know and which cannot be located[51] (even) by all Buddhas of the three times; hence the three words: 'no one knows'. The next three (fourth, fifth and sixth) lines show the old master's expedient expounding of this state. The last two lines (seventh and eighth) give a special waffling to all of us, lest we mistake the finger for the moon,[52] that is none of these words are Ch'an.[53]

My talk is like a heap of things and is also (like what we call) the drag of creepers[54] and an interfering interruption (because) wherever there are words and speeches, there is no real meaning.[55] When the ancient masters received their students, either they used their staffs (to beat them) or they shouted (to wake them up)[56] and there were not so many complications. However, the present cannot be compared with the past, and it is, therefore, imperative to point a finger at the moon.[57] Dear friends, please look into all this; after all, who is pointing his finger and who is looking at the moon?'[58]


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[1]By going to (a) the hell of fire, (b) the hell of blood, where the inhabitants devour each other like animals and (c) the Asipattra hell of swords, where the leaves and grass are sharp-edged swords.

[2]This story was related by the Buddha himself.

[3]King of Sravasti and a contemporary of the Buddha. He was killed by his son, Virudhaka, known as the Crystal King and the Evil Born King, who supplanted him.

[4] Maha-Maudgalyayana, or Maudgalaputra, was one of the ten chief disciples of the Buddha, and was specially noted for his miraculous power; formerly an ascetic, he agreed with Sariputra that whichever first found the truth would reveal it to the other. Sariputra found the Buddha and brought Maudgalyayana to Him; the former is placed on His right, the latter on His left.

[5]This story is recorded in 'The Transmission of the Lamp' (Ching Te Ch'uan Teng Lu) and other Ch'an collections.

[6]In his previous life. the old monk had already succeeded in disentangling his mind (from its attachment to the phenomenal. However, he could not get away from Samsara because of the karma of misguiding his former disciple about retribution. In his present transmigration, he had realized a singleness of mind about leaving the world of animals and had thereby acquired the occult power of transforming his fox's body into that of an old man. However, he still clung to the dual view of the existence of ego (subject) and fox (object) and could not free himself from this last bondage. Pai Chang's words had a tremendous effect on the old man, releasing his mind from his doubt about his self-nature which fundamentally was pure and contained neither cause nor effect. Being free from this last bond, his self-nature now returned to normal and could function without further handicap; it could hear the master's voice by means of its function. When function operated normally, its essence manifested itself; hence enlightenment.

[7]See 'The Altar Sutra of the Six Patriarch,' Chapter 3.

[8]The name of a very beautiflil lady who, according to a popular tale, stole the elixir of life and fled with it to the moon where she was changed into a frog.

[9]Avici is the last and deepest of the eight hells, where the culprits suffer, die, and are instantly reborn to suffering without interruption.

[10]As punishment for verbal sins.

[11]The Patriarchs are the six Patriarchs of China. The Ancestors are the great Ch'an Masters who came after the Patriarchs. Hsu Yun is now called an Ancestor.

[12]Bodhimandala: truth-plot, holy site, place of enlightenment.

[13]A custom of Buddha in teaching His disciples, from which the burning of spots on the head of a monk is said to have originated. The eventual vision of the Buddha is merely an impure creation of the deluded mind and does not really represent Him in His Dharmakaya which is inconceivable. Many meditators mistake such visions for the real and become involved with demons. (See Surangama Sutra.)

[14]See Master Hsu Yun's 'Daily Discourses'.

[15]All things are returnable to One-mind, to what is One-mind returnable?

[16]This hua t'ou is sometimes wrongly translated in the West as: Before your parents were born, what was your original face? There are two errors here. The first is probably due to the wrong interpretation of the Chinese character 'sheng'. which means 'born' or 'to give birth'. Then 'original' is wrong because it suggests creation or a beginning. The self-nature has no beginning, being outside time. The correct rendering is: Before your parents gave birth to you, what was your fundamental face?'

[17]Doubt is as indispensable to hua t'ou as crutches are to the cripples.

[18]Lit. utter purity and extreme lightness. When the meditator succeeds in putting an end to all his thoughts, he will step into 'the stream' or correct concentration in which his body and its weight seem to disappear completely and to give way to a bright purity which is as light as air; he will feel as if he is about to be levitated.

[19]Lit. thus clearing away the fog that darkens the sky. As soon as the confusing dullness is cleared away, the self-nature, now free from hindrance, is able to function normally and will actually receive the beating, hence enlightenment.

[20]Avyakrta or Avyakhyata, in Sanskrit; unrecordable, either as good or bad; neutral,
neither good nor bad, things that are innocent and cannot be classified under moral categories.

[21] when the mind is disentangled from the sense-organs, sense data and consciousness, one reaches a state described as: 'holding fast to the top of a pole', or 'silent immersion in stagnant water or 'sitting on the dean white ground'. (See Han Shan's 'Song of the Boardbearer'.) One should take a step forward in order to get out of this state called 'a life', the fourth of the four laksanas (of an ego, a personality, a being and a life) mentioned in the Diamond Sutra, otherwise the result one will achieve is no better than 'soaking stones with water' which never penetrates stones. if from the top of a hundred-foot pole one takes a step forward, one will reach the top of a high peak from which one will release one's last hold and leap over the phenomenal.

[22]Diamond eye: indestructible eye of Wisdom.

[23]A superfluous and unnecessary thing that will obstruct the training.

[24]The monk became thoroughly awakened after hearing Chao Chou's reply. His first question means: 'What should one do when one becomes disentangled from sense-organs, sense-data and consciousnesses?' He did not know that he was still entangled with this awareness of ego and preservation of ego. (See Han Shan's commentary on The Diamond Cutter of Doubts). Chao Chou's reply 'Lay it down' means: 'Lay down even the thought you are still burdened with, for this very thought of not carrying a thing with you holds you in bondage.' The monk argued: 'As I do not carry a single thing with me, what shall I lay down?' Chao Chou replied: 'If you really have got rid of all your false thinking, there will only remain your self-nature which is pure and clean and which you should carry away with you, because you cannot get rid of it.' The monk, now released from his awareness of ego or last bondage, realized that only his self-nature remained which was free from all impediments and which he could not get rid of, for Chao Chou told him to carry it away. It was this very self-nature of his, now pure and clean, which actually heard the master's voice, hence his enlightenment.

[25]These two lines come from Lin Chi (Rinzai in Japanese) whose idea was that one could talk about enlightenment with an enlightened person and that it was useless to do so when meeting a deluded man, for the truth was inexpressible and could only be realized after rigorous training. The first line 'When you meet a fencing master, show to him your sword' was illustrated when Han Shan met Ta Kuan and sat cross-legged face to face with him for forty days and nights without sleeping. (See Han Shan's Autobiography). The second line 'Do not give your poem to a man who's not a poet' was proved by the Sixth Patriarch, who urged his disciples not to discuss the Supreme Vehicle with those who were not of the same sect, but to bring their palms together to salute them and make them happy. (See The Altar Sifra of the Sixth Patriarch.)

[26]i.e. to accord with the world, its ways and customs; to die.

[27]Realm of birth and death.

[28]i.e. succees is bound to follow.

[29]in China, only starving people eat creepers of sweet potato which is used as food for pigs

[30]Chang: a measure of ten Chinese feet.

[31]Literally 'sons of officials'; equivalent of the French term 'fils a papa'.

[32]One of the ten wrong views.

[33]Animals and birds were chosen by the ancients as symbols for lunar years, such as a rat, buffalo, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, chicken, dog and pig. As a donkey was not one of them, the year of the donkey can never come round, i.e. these people can never attain enlightenment.

[34]The Samyuktagama Sutra says: 'There was a blind tortoise countless aeons old which stretched out its head once every century. There was a log with a hole through it, floating in the sea and tossed about by high waves raised by winds of gale force. The tortoise stretched its head through the hole. . . .' This shows the rareness of the chance as compared with the difficulty of the blind black tortoise succeeding in putting its head through the hole in the floating log.

[35]i.e. differentiation between stillness and disturbance.

[36]Ancient masters used to twinkle  their eyes and raise their eyebrows to reveal the self-mind to their disciples. In the above text, those who have only made some progress but are still unenlightened, ape the ancients to prove their attainment of the truth.

[37]when the mind is like a wall, it will remain indifferent to all externals.

[38]See The Altar Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch.

[39]Quotation from the Lotus Sutra in which the Buddha urged His disciples not to stay in the illusion-city or incomplete Nirvana  but to strive to reach the Perfect Nirvana.

[40]An old lady supported a Ch'an monk for twenty years and used to send every day a sixteenn-year-old girl to bring him food and offerings. One day. the old lady ordered the girl to ask him this question: 'How is "it" at this very moment?' The monk replied:
'A withered log in a cold cave
After three winters has no warmth'.
The girl gave the monk's reply to the old lady who said: 'I have been making offerings to one who can prove only that he is a worldly fellow.' Thereupon, she sent him away and set fire to the hut. (See The Imperial Selection of Ch'an Sayings). The monk reached only the top of a hundred-foot pole but refused to take a step forward. As he was only dead wood, the old lady was angry, sent him away and destroyed the hut.

[41] i.e. the bottom of the barrel full of black lacquer, or ignorance; when it drops off; the barrel will be emptied of lacquer and enlightenment will be attained.

[42]Han Shan (Cold Mountain) should not be confounded with Han Shan (Silly Mountain) whose autobiography has been translated by me into English.

[43]The high purpose of one desirous of escaping from mortality.

[44]The magnitude of his high aim.

[45]Worldly men turn their backs on the transcendental which they do not know.

[46]The solitary moon symbolizes enlightenment which is independent of the phenomenal and is the absolute which does not brook interference from any quarter. The pool is a symbol of the self-nature which avoids all worldly things and is disentangled from them. The line means the attainment of enlightenment by self-nature.

[47]The self-nature is fundamentally pure and clean and does not gain anything, even the moon, symbol of enlightenment, when it is awakened, or lose anything, when it is under delusion. If there be a moon, or enlightenment in it, it will not be absolute and will not be pure and clean.

[48]The enlightened self-nature neither comes nor goes for it is immutable and pervades everywhere in the Dharmadhatu, symbolized by the blue sky which is pure and clean.

[49]The song is chanted in praise of that which is pure and clean and does not contain an atom of Ch'an, because Ch'an is only an empty name with no real nature.

[50]Bhutatathata: the real, thus always, or eternally so; i.e. reality as contrasted with unreality, or appearance, and the unchanging or immutable as contrasted with form and phenomena. Bhuta is substance, that which exists; tathata is suchness, thusness, i.e. such is its nature.

[51]If it can be located anywhere, it will not be the absolute and will not be all embracing.

[52]When a finger points towards the moon, wise men look at the moon whereas the ignorant look at the finger and do not see the moon, or the truth. This parable was used by the Buddha when teaching His disciples.

[53]Readers will notice that footnotes [43] to [49] on this page seem somewhat different from Master Hsu Yun's commentary on the song, and will realize that Han Shan's poem was excellent in that it can be interpreted either 'perpendicularly' or 'horizontally' as the learned ancients put it, provided there be no deviation from its main purport. My footnotes describe a student striving to achieve enlightenment whereas my master Hsu Yun describes the state of an enlightened master. Gathas and poems chanted by the ancients are like a prism or spectrum of multi-levelled meanings. as Mr. L Groupp, an American Buddhist of New York, ably puts it.

[54]Creepers: unnecessary things which do not concern the real.

[55]Words and speeches cannot express the inexpressible. Red meaning is the reality which cannot be described and expressed

[56]Beating and shouting are to reveal the master's self-nature which beats and shouts and the student's self-nature which is beaten and hears the shout. The beating and shouting are in accord with Bodhidharma's direct pointing at the self-mind for realization of the self-nature for attainment of Buddhahood.

[57]The finger is an expediency used to reveal the moon, or enlightened self-nature, but one should not ding to the finger and overlook the moon which is pointed at.

[58]One who points at the moon and one who looks at the moon are the self-mind of the master and the self-mind of the student respectively, again a direct pointing at the self-mind for realization of self-nature and attainment of Buddhahood, as taught by Bodhidbarma.

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