Requirements for Practicing Chan

In order to practice Chan very well, one needs to have faith, one needs to arouse angry determination, and one needs to generate the great doubt.

If you do not have faith in yourself, then not only will you not get far in the practice, but you will not succeed in anything else. The basis of faith must come from your daily life as well as from an understanding of Buddhadharma. Understanding Buddhadharma gives rise to faith in yourself because you know that Sakyamuni Buddha was just an ordinary sentient being, and yet he reached buddhahood. Furthermore, he said that every sentient being without exception can become a buddha. So faith in yourself is connected to the belief that what the Buddha said must be true, that you can reach buddhahood. From historical records, we know that many practitioners, using the methods taught by the Buddha, including the patriarchs of the Chan sect, attained enlightenment. The fact that you are able to practice these methods means that you can also attain enlightenment.

Related to this, not only must you have faith in the Buddha, but also in those who have experience, notably, your master or teacher. But it is quite a difficult thing to have absolute faith in your Shifu (teacher) upon first meeting. Likewise, it is difficult in the beginning to have the confidence that you can definitely reach buddhahood. Only after deriving some benefit after considerable practice will you be able to believe that you can definitely get enlightened.

... that Sakyamuni Buddha was just an ordinary sentient being, and yet he reached buddhahood. Furthermore, he said that every sentient being without exception can become a buddha.

That is why I do not require my students to believe in anything at the very beginning. Rather, I just give them certain methods of practice. These methods vary according to the personality and level of practice of each student. And even the same person may be given different methods at different times. Only after students have derived some benefit from using the method will they develop faith in Shifu. At that time whatever method I instruct the student to use, he will go ahead with diligence. Then I will ask them to give up their attachments to their own life, their conceptions of themselves, and their experience. If they can do this, they will be close to the door of enlightenment.

Yet, even after faith is attained, if the student does not bring forth a great determination to reach the goal of enlightenment within a fixed period of time, then in spite of his faith, he will not derive much benefit very quickly. This type of person must put in a long time of gradual practice before he or she can naturally enter enlightenment. Like rowing a boat upstream, unless you keep up your effort, there is a chance you may regress. This is true even if you have had some very good experiences in meditation. But after you practice for a while, you may feel exhausted physically and spiritually. If you don’t doze off while sitting, you find that you cannot summon up any energy. Under these conditions, you may think: “Maybe I’ll take a rest for awhile. If I can’t get enlightened today, then I’ll try again tomorrow. If not tomorrow, anyway, eventually it will happen.” This is called being lax in the practice.

Thus we have a second requirement, namely, great angry determination. This means putting aside all concerns and pushing forward because you are aware that, “If I were to suddenly die, I would fail to accomplish my practice in this lifetime.” With this attitude, you simply must work hard, putting aside any consideration of your own life and death. If a Chan practitioner does not have a very immediate, direct feeling that he or she may die at any moment, then it is difficult for great angry determination to arise. Some students may find my demands unreasonable, especially on retreat, where I may ask them to minimize their sleeping time as much as possible. So long as you are not about to collapse, you should continue working on the method. However, some students simply cannot sustain this kind of practice. In this case, I may take a comforting, alternative approach, suggesting that they should take a good rest until they are completely recovered, and then come back and practice again. Very often, this approach also works and after sleeping, those students will practice even harder and develop great angry determination.

But for those who still cannot mange to bring up this determination, I will say that Shakyamuni Buddha dedicated himself to hard practice for six years because he wanted to save sentient beings from suffering, and after he reached buddhahood he taught his disciples the method to practice. Likewise, the great Chan masters through the ages all practiced for a great length of time before they got enlightened, and they transmitted these methods and experience down to our generation. Now, enjoying the efforts passed down by enlightened people over a long time, you are very fortunate in so short a time to come in contact with Chan. Knowing this, if you are still not inspired to practice hard, you should feel shame towards the Chan masters, not to mention the Buddha himself. Furthermore, your parents gave you your precious body and so many other people have contributed to you in various ways. If you do not use your life to practice hard and get some results, you are being unjust to all who have given so much, and there is no way you can repay them.

After one has established great faith and developed great angry determination the third requirement for practice is to “investigate Chan.” In Chinese this is called tsan chan. The purpose is to give rise to the great doubt. This great doubt is not the ordinary doubt of suspicion or skepticism, but in fact, of having absolute faith in the method of practice. The doubt refers to the questioning attitude that one must have in order to investigate Chan. We use the method as a guide to ask ourselves what we originally are. The Buddha said that all sentient beings have buddha-nature, so why is it that I cannot recognize myself as a buddha? If I am not a buddha, then after all, who am I? We do not try to answer these questions using our knowledge, experience, or reasoning. Rather, we continuously ask ourselves until all thoughts suddenly vanish, the mind and environment disappear, and we are naturally in an enlightened state.

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