Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A very short comment on Chinese Chan (Zen) method of teaching


With due respect, but I disagree with the main idea of D.T. Suzuki here, where he highly praised , or over-praised the method of teaching Chan (or Zen) of the Chinese Zen masters from the 7th century on. Shortly, on the 3, 4 pages, as pictured below, Suzuki said :

1.   The Chinese Zen method of teaching was a novel way of teaching Buddhism, created by the Chinese as it was more adaptive, suited for the Chinese philosophical bent , Chinese propensity, and cultural acculturation.

2.   It was a spectacular as well as peculiar Chinese product.

Exactly here, Chinese Zen Buddhism took a strange, different , "wrong" turn [ wrong , in the sense of taking an abrupt change of direction, deviant method, as previously taught in the Indian way of teaching Buddhism and meditation, and other related matters].   By this I mean, just by watching the “extraordinary” posture, gesture of Bodhidharma— in silence and meditation—  in the cave, and by the very short sentence he replied to Huệ Khả ( huìkě  慧可 ), the 2nd Chinese patriarch,when Huệ Khả asked him to “calm/quiet” his frequently not-so-tranquil, fidgety Mind (*) . And Bodhidharma replied by a question : Where is your Mind ? From this Huệ Khả recognized some satori (Chinese: 悟; Vietnamese: ngộ).

By just watching the Grand master and his answer to Huệ Khả , a very “sudden” approach to Realizing a core truth of Buddhism, by the doctrine of “Looking directly into the Mind”, and strange actions, reactions, gestures,“behaviors”— irrespective, disregarding, or with even worse attitude toward the Sutra , or Sastra— I believe the Chinese have come up with a poor, bad method of teaching dhyana, causing a lot of confusion, misled “guiding shed of light” from the Chan, Zen () teachers to the students.


1. (*) The Chinese use this Chinese character 心 (= heart, but it also denotes the base of consciousness, and of cognizant consciousness, or Mind in Western philosophy)

2. I totally agree to the part “looking directly into the Mind”, or Consciousness base ( my term), but disagree with the attitude of disregarding, even belittling the Sutras and Sastras.

3. Many answers to the koans, dialogues between teachers and students , the gestures, the ways to somehow transmit insight to the core meanings of Buddhism from the Chinese Zen masters from 7th century down, appeared to me, 20 years ago, or now, are just misleading , confusing “junks”, bad method of teaching something deep , but practical like the  meanings and truths of Buddhism

4. We don’t really know the pillars, the guiding principles of Chinese Chan teaching , as in the below table:

  Outside the sutras (scriptures)
  Don't found on words
  Look directly into the Mind
  “See”/Realize the true Nature (of all Dharmas, even that of Buddha’s) to become Buddha

We don’t know if these words were from Bodhidharma ( I doubt it), or from Nam Tuyền Phổ Nguyện ( 南泉普願, 749-835), but since the 8th century on, it was the belief of Chinese practitioners in practicing Chan

Giáo ngoại biệt truyền
Truyền giáo pháp ngoài kinh điển
Bất lập văn tự
Không lập văn tự
Trực chỉ nhân tâm
Chỉ thẳng tâm người
Kiến tính thành Phật
Thấy chân tính thành Phật.

5. Here, there is a big difference between Vietnamese Thiền ( Zen/Chan) and Chan of the Chinese : the Vietnamese Thiền masters/teachers never disregard the importance of Giáo tông [the Sutra (reading scriptures to absorb the practice and meaning) denomination], or belittle the Pure Land Buddhism, whose main practice is praying to Amitābha Buddha to attain (one pointed)  Concentration and maintaining the image, super quality and Compassion of Buddha as well as developing bodhicitta. This can be seen in the ways of teaching Zen of two present Vietnamese masters : Thích Thanh Từ and Thích Nhất Hạnh, as well as in the practices of many pagodas in Vietnam, before 1975 [ After 1975 I do not have enough information].

6. Don’t get me wrong: I personally practiced some forms of Zen as far as they are related to understanding some other way to explore the Prajñāpāramitā  Idea/Mind base Exploration ( Bát-nhã-ba-la-mật-đa  般若波羅蜜多, the Perfect wisdom) . Others often called Prajnaparamita a “system of thought”, but I do not like it being named/defined as such, because the connotation of a system of thought normally provokes a system, in which ideas, concepts, analyses intertwine , connect and elaborate the way a system of philosophy, or system analysis, or system of linear equations do. The Bát-nhã-ba-la-mật-đa surely connects many things in the vast warehouse of our Consciousness, but itself is not realized by way of “thinking upon” , analyzing, conceptualizing, although It does not deny these activities either, but It is realized mainly on “Deep” meditation on the nature of things, as I recognize.

I believe this method of teaching Zen may be suited for some (very small number) people with quick-witted mind and adept in their propensity after they have learned and grasped correctly the main points in the Prajnaparamita,  but I disagree very strongly to how the messages on the “nature” of Buddhism, the core meanings and truths of the Perfect Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) and its “elements” can be transmitted by the dark, cloudiness of dialogues, the strikes, the blows, the shouts, or kicks of the teachers, especially when you do not consult the wisdom from the Sutras ( Scriptures/Bibles) and the Sastras ( Discourses)

7. A word of caution for beginners: As I cautioned the Vietnamese readers in a somewhat similar version of this article about learning Buddhism, or meditation through shortcuts, or fantasies when you read too far, too wild into the stories of Chinese “spectacular” Zen and its masters with their behaviors, kicks, blows, shouts, or dialogues, here I repeat it once more. Start with the basic books on Buddhism on its tenets, path to Enlightenment, ideas, “concepts”. I found 2 books that are extremely useful, well written : “The Buddha and his Teachings” ( Đức Phật và Phật Pháp) by Narada Mahathera and the other , more philosophical, “ What the Buddha taught” ( Những Điều Phật Dạy) by Walpola Sri Rahula Mahathera. Then read the scriptures and explanations, comments by the monks, or nuns at least 5, 7 of them in either Mahayana or Theravada Buddhism. and are very good sources. Then read the Sastras ( Discourses=Luận) to search, get in deeper, cultivate more. At the same time you may learn meditations. The most basic book on meditation , my experience told me,  is Satipatthana Sutta, sutra 10  in the Majjhima Nikàya ( tức Kinh Bốn Lĩnh Vực Quán Niệm , do Thầy Nhất Hạnh dịch giảng).  Books, like “ Essays in Zen Buddhism” , are basically for more mature understanding and reference.

8. As I know, in Tibet, after the defeat of Moheyan in the 8th century, the Tibetan Buddhists practice debates to discuss, explore and understand the finer/finest points in the core meanings and truths in Buddhism. They do not practice any type of meditation like Chinese Zen

“ While Moheyan took a subitist approach to enlightenment, his position was weakened when conceding that practices such as the perfection of morality, studying the sutras and teachings of the masters, and cultivating meritorious actions were appropriate.These types of actions were seen as part of the "gradualist" school, and Moheyan held that these were only necessary for those of "dim"facility and "dull" propensity. Those of "sharp" and"keen" facility and propensity do not need these practices, as they have "direct" access to the truth through meditation. This concession to the "gradualists", that not everyone can achieve the highest state of meditation, left Moheyan open to the charge that he had a dualistic approach to practice. To overcome these inconsistencies in his thesis, Moheyan claimed that when one gave up all conceptions, an automatic, all-at-once attainment of virtue resulted. He taught that there was an "internal" practice to gain insight and liberate one-self, and an "external" practice to liberate others upaya, or skillful means). These were seen as two independent practices, a concession to human psychology and scriptural tradition.

Most Tibetan sources state that the debate was decided in Kamasila’s favour (though many Chinese sources claim Moheyan won)[2] and Moheyan was required to leave the country and that all sudden-enlightenment texts were gathered and destroyed by royal decree. This was a pivotal event in the history of Tibetan Buddhism ,which would afterward continue to follow the late Indian model with only minor influence fromChina.”




English version

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