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Part3: Formal Dharma Discourses - Introduction

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The nature of the following Dharma lectures is such that an outline of the meditation hall lifestyle, the setting in which they were delivered, can be useful as background for the appreciation of the Ch’an monk’s life and the unique type of lecture which Ch’an Masters deliver. At present few people are familiar with the atmosphere in which Ch’an meditators in Korea have trained for centuries. It is regrettable that most modern commentators, though presenting both accurate translations of the dialogues between Master and pupil and authentic cases of spiritual awakening as achieved by meditators of old, have failed to emphasize either the disciple’s state of mind, achieved only after many years of training, or to present an account of the environment and mode of life within which so many successful meditators have lived and worked. Accounts of the life as lived from day to day, and month to month are especially lacking. For these reasons, the normal routine of a meditation hall, which functions today just as it has for over one thousand years, is presented here.
 
i. The location of Korea

The Korean peninsula juts out into the seas separating the Chinese mainland from Japan; Korea can therefore be compared to a land bridge almost linking China and Japan. For this reason Chinese Buddhism entered Korea early in Korean history and greatly influenced the course of development of the native tradition. Subsequently Buddhism was able to flourish in Japan due to the missionary activities of Korean monks.

Regrettably, little is known of the equally great Korean Buddhist tradition.
 
ii. The location of Song Kwang Sa and the meditation hall lifestyle.

In the extreme south of the Korean peninsula, within the valley below Chogye Mountain, is settled the monastery of Song Kwang Sa, which has functioned as a meditation center for over one thousand years. From its small beginnings, the monastery grew to its present scale, and ever since has held a prominent place in the native Buddhist tradition. Since the great rebuilding and expansion undertaken by Chinul (posthumous title: National Master Bojo) some eight centuries ago, Song Kwang Sa has been one of the foremost training centers for sitting meditation. Fifteen National Masters maintained this school of Ch’an begun by Master Bojo, and the present Ch’an Master, who delivered these talks, is representative of this long established tradition. The monastery is the only one in Korea having foreign monks and nuns in permanent residence.

Most meditators live in the largest of the three meditation halls, which is a long, natural structure of wood and tile. It is attached to the Dharma Lecture Hall, wherein the following lectures where delivered. These two buildings, with the Ch’an Master’s small hermitage, the Abbot’s room, and the Hall of the Patriarchs, are secluded in a spacious compound high above the general temple complex. Entry to this area is restricted as it is considered the heart of the monastery. Flower gardens and evergreen trees border the courtyards and serve as screens from curious eyes.

There are two periods annually devoted to intensive meditative cultivation. Although general custom requires that meditators spend each of the three-month long cultivation seasons within the Meditation Hall, the hall functions non-stop and continuous residence is certainly encouraged. Undoubtedly, the natural environment alone should be sufficient to induce longer periods of residence, for the hall looks over the monastery complex and out towards the towering, rugged, snowcapped peaks of Mount Mohu, through the long forested valley. A huge triple peaked mountain stands opposite, and pine trees and a chain of peaks at back of the hall complete a setting which closely resembles a Chinese landscape painting.

Inside the hall on the other hand, the external scenery, no matter how attractive, remains generally hidden from sight by sliding paper screens. Though there may be rows of meditators in silent meditation behind the paper doors, and rows of slip-on shoes in neat lines below the wooden deck outside, there is an aura of absolute quiet, as if no one at all was inside the area. However were a visitor to remove his shoes according to the Asian custom, and enter through the sliding screen, he would be surprised to find twenty-five grey-robed meditators sitting immobile in two long rows, back to back, quietly facing the wall. The room is very large, pleasantly warm, but bare of anything except the essentials. The yellow paper-covered, warm stone floor is laid out with two neat rows of brown sitting cushions. Thick bamboo beams overhead support brown kesas, (formal robes), which hang neatly side by side. On the far wall, long, formal, ‘butterfly-wing’ sleeved grey robes hang from their pegs. An altar-niche in the wall holds a silver incense burner, water bowl, and candlesticks.

Usually the meditators arrive two or three weeks before the meditation season formally begins in order to be assured of a position in the hall. After prostrating before the Community and being formally accepted into the Ch’an hall, the traveling monk is given a small locker in the loft, and there he keeps his belongings in a cloth backpack. The loft is only big enough to store fruit, which the Sangha collects in late autumn, and to hang up ten or twenty thick winter coats. This is the only room which cannot be heated, and unless one has on his thick padded coat, one generally doesn’t venture into it in winter except to warm up with hot tea. While talking inside the meditation hall compound is prohibited, it is not so strictly enforce in the loft, and therefore the atmosphere is more relaxed. Unless the monk is new to the wandering Ch’an life, most of the other monks are old acquaintances. This environment which is so helpful in exerting control on the mental processes is not the sole monopoly of meditation monks who can devote all their time to the study of Ch’an; during the summer months especially, Buddhist nuns, laymen, and laywomen also frequently sit in their own separate meditation halls. Korean Buddhists are almost entirely followers of the Lin-chi Ch’an school which developed in China, yet the style is somewhat different from the Chinese form, and definitely distinct from its Japanese counterpart. The Korean meditation school has been influenced by both of these illustrious neighbors while retaining distinct national characteristics. The Chinese or Japanese counterparts of Korean meditation halls are dimly lit, chilly, and drafty but as it is the Korean tradition to meditate for far longer stretches in the hall, to live in a similar environment for months or years on end would only serve to destroy one’s health. Therefore, the large room is heated daily by a blazing fire beneath the stone floor at one end of the room. For extra protection against the howling winter blizzards, a double screen of paper doors circles the building. There is no need for chairs or raised platforms as everyone sits atop a cushion on the heated floor.

Needless to say it is difficult indeed to live secluded from the world and to follow the Buddha’s Way. It requires many patient days, months, or even years of regular training before an enlightenment of any depth; the renewed laying-down of one’s attachments is also a prerequisite. Master Lai-kuo spoke of ‘one thousand days training and a split-second enlightenment’; National Master Bojo pointed out the necessity of ‘sudden awakening and successive gradual training’. Quite obviously serious practitioners only are likely to achieve Path and Fruition in the Dharma ending age. Nevertheless people who have seen the impermanence of all conditioned things; those who have reflected on how they may be afflicted with sickness, will eventually grow old, and remain subject to death’s inevitable approach with its consequent rebirth; those who have seen the potential danger of possessing a mind subject to the Inversions, and realize the continual disappointment inherent in pleasures as well as the tiresome repetitiveness in many aspects of life: such people have willingly chosen this style of life, aspiring for Supreme Enlightenment. How could the schedule be other than taut?

Taking advantage of birth in this fortunate human realm, Ch’an monks begin the day early by rising at 3 am each morning. Curiously enough, though all sleep well, everyone hears the clock chime three, and with that sound meditation begins. The first duty is to fold the thick cotton quilts and then stack them out of the way. Then, while trying to remain mindful of their hua-t’ou, they go outdoors into the darkness and the harsh, cold wind, quickly walk to the toilet, return, and then freshen up by washing in the cold spring water. During the coldest months of the year this can require breaking the ice on the stone tub to get to the water. Anyway, when they return to the warmth inside, all are wide awake.

Once back, fully ordained monks then carefully remove their brown kesas from the hanging bamboo beam, respectfully raise the traditional garment over their heads momentarily, and return to their allotted positions. There each throws it over his left shoulder, swings it around under the right arm, attaches the two sides together with a clasp, and stands with palms folded. Meanwhile novices walk to the far end of the hall, collect their long, formal, large-sleeved grey robes from their respective pegs and return to their cushions. There they don them, put on their small square kesas, tie a wide belt around their waist, and respectfully place their hands together in the ‘prayer’ position also. When the Ch’an hall leader sees that all are ready, he indicates when all should bow in unison towards the altar-niche and large circular mirror (symbolic of the Buddha’s Perfect Mirror Wisdom). Perhaps instead, they bow to each other in recognition of the Buddha-nature within one another. Three prostrations completed, the grey robe or dark brown kesa is folded and hung in place. Everyone then quickly assumes the meditation posture. The majority sit in the more comfortable ‘quarter lotus’ posture, few use the half or full lotus seat. When all are settled three clacks of the split bamboo rod indicates that the first formal, silent sitting period of the day has begun. The time: approximately 3:15 am.

Since rising the Ch’an cultivators have been endeavoring to focus on the hua-t’ou or kung-an while rolling up the bedding and while washing, but while active it is generally more difficult to concentrate on ‘one-thought’. Assuming the still posture and setting the body at rest therefore helps the beginner to maintain the hua-t’ou moment after the moment. The human mind is generally prone to go outside to sense things in the outer world, then form value judgments about the objects seen and heard, and thus give rise to a flowing steam of discriminations from morning to night. The quiet lifestyle and meditative practices help to lessen and finally cut off these discriminations. The specific method used is to reverse the mind’s normal external-orientation through looking inside: looking into the very nature of the mind. When the mind-nature is realized, the self-nature is perceived, which is the attainment of Buddhahood. The mind in its original, unstirred state is called Buddha, Pure Mind, True Mind, or One Mind. This Absolute, or ‘true-man’, is therefore not outside oneself but is independent of, and seemingly beyond, the five skandhas (body, feelings, perceptions, mental activities, and consciousness). These five are the false-I; that which is existent prior to the uprising of thought is the True-Mind, or the True-I. The very basis of this Buddhist Ch’an is not thinking of evil, not thinking of good, and looking into one’s ‘fundamental-face’ until it is realized.

The trainees remain immobile and endeavor to bore into their hua-t’ou until the clock strikes four when the hall supervisor will clap the bamboo rod. Then, all may stretch their legs out before walking. The second clack of the rod against his hand is the signal to jump up and begin ten minutes of mobile Ch’an. This is the routine a Ch’an hall follows throughout the day and night, year in and year out: … fifty minute sittings interspersed with ten minutes walking. During the period given to walking, people are free to leave and use the toilet or to take a drink. Walking around the hall’s outer perimeter is done at normal speed with the hands swinging loosely. Without looking to the right or left, or concerning themselves with what others may or may not be doing, they endeavor to maintain the mind in a clear, one-pointed state.

The morning schedule is continued with until half-an-hour before breakfast, when the serious cultivators do a few simple yoga exercises and return to the walking exercise. The less serious, which are generally the youngest, take this opportunity to lie down and sleep on the inviting warm floor for twenty or thirty minutes before eating. This is a bad habit, which when begun is hard to break. It may certainly help one lose whatever might have been gained in two and a half hours of work with the hua-t’ou. Normally, at this time of the morning, if one’s mind has been dull, this dullness is mistaken for genuine tiredness.

For those given to sleep, the gong which reverberates in the pre-dawn darkness and echoes on the mountain face opposite, comes all too soon. It is the signal for breakfast and all are requir3d to attend. Donning the thick, cotton-padded coat, all go down to the meal room, and when all are seated in order, the younger monks first serve water to rinse the bowls, then follow up with rice and vegetable soup. Small basins containing pickled vegetables are passed around. All help themselves, then pass them on. Three clacks of the rod is the signal to raise the hands, place the palms together, and bow in gratitude for the food received. It is very quickly eaten, bowls are washed, dried, and put away on the shelf, then all leave just as quickly as they arrived. A cup of milk is served to each meditator at his seat in the hall and afterwards the monastery compound and pathways are swept. By eight o’clock this is done and all return to the Ch’an hall to continue the sitting and walking exercises until 10:30. After doing more yoga asanas, getting dressed in the formal robe with big square sleeves, and going to the main Buddha hall for a brief chanting service, the main meal of the day is taken. Then at about 12:30 in the spring, summer and fall, all go to the vegetables and barley gardens, or perhaps to the rice paddy fields for an hour and a half or two hours communal work. Dusty and hot, a wash or swim in the river is taken, and the Ch’an hall schedule is returned to.

The life within the traditional Ch’an monastery of Korea or China is therefore very regulated; the only time those living in the meditation hall are not within it is during the periods of group work, meal-times and temple service. Twelve or fourteen hours are spent daily in the Ch’an discipline of the mind while sitting or walking within the hall, and the routine finishes at 10 pm when four or five hours are given to sleep.

During the sitting and walkings the practitioner’s mind can be very disturbed if it is still under the influence of busy comings and goings. Not everyone can tolerate this life. They may see clearly a whole stream of varied thoughts instead of ‘one thought which lasts ten thousand years’ as the masters say; the ‘question’ and doubt are likely to be broken with wandering thoughts. From personal experience cultivators learn how extremely difficult it is to curb the unnecessary daydreaming tendency and the train of thoughts. The task may even appear hopeless at times. Exerting energy, they may give rise to one thought of doubt temporarily but concentration soon dissolves if attacked by roving thoughts. These imaginings are generally stirred into activity by memories or imaginations while sitting quietly; while active, the ‘village attacking bandits’ as the Buddha called the six external sense objects, are the enemies to peace of mind. Perhaps the hua-t’ou will vanish due to the tendency to fall asleep or become dull when the mind quietens but loses its sharpness. Great strength and unlimited patience are required to subdue an untamed mind. It certainly is not easy to reside in the Ch’an hall or to realize Buddhahood. Nevertheless, if one can pick up the ‘Green Dragon Treasure Sword’ (the hua-t’ou cultivated to a razor sharp edge) one can slash through wandering thoughts and eventually cut out primordial ignorance. With this view in mind, most advanced sitters often reside alone or in pairs in hermitages high above the monastery, or on the mountain plateau. The hours of work are long and the discipline beyond the endurance of some. Long efforts at concentrating on ‘one thought’ familiarizes cultivators with the exercise. The English word ‘contemplation’, discursive thinking about things, is very far from what is meant. If a practitioner were to reflect on things he would be very strongly rebuked.

After residing in the hall awhile and getting to know other cultivators, one occasionally hears of people being able to hold the hua-t’ou firmly and immovably, halting the thought flow, experiencing meditational bliss, forgetting awareness of time and breath, seeing appearances of bright light, having interesting but troublesome mental pictures come and go, and dropping into voidness ? the last of which is similar to chien-hsing (Jap. Kensho) or seeing into the True-nature. Genuine chien-hsing is quite rare. It seems that Korean Ch’an Masters do not give certification of chien-hsing nearly as readily as their Japanese brothers. One must take into account the fact that Japanese Rinzai Zen uses Hakuin Zenji’s koan (kung-an) system, while Korea uses the Chinese method, which does not change kung-ans unless they are unsuitable. This is especially so in the case of a kung-an like Mu.

Not only Ch’an monks but laypeople also are taught to remember the hua-t’ou while walking or sitting, in coming and going, while prostrating in the Buddha hall, in chanting the Heart Sutra, while working, during meals and even while washing the rice bowl! That is, at all times and in all places, the meditator focuses on the what? Endeavoring to bring forth the i-ching (sensation of doubt) and break through it. When the doubt-mass is smashed, dualism is transcended. There are then no opposites such as self and other; the dualism of is and is not is seen as unreal. This is when the world of Enlightenment opens. Sense objects, sense organs and the resultant sense-based consciousnesses are perceived as unreal and empty. The ego-concept dissolves and the six bases of contact are no longer ruled over by conceit. Shunyata (voidness) is attained. What power could death and primordial ignorance then hold? From where could egotistical thoughts and worldly feelings, which form karma and its bonds, ever arise? An ancient verse reads:

‘Should one aspire to Supreme Enlightenment,
Cherish always a balanced mind.
When one forms discriminations, - likes and dislikes,
Further off is the Way, heavier is the karma.’

The Ch’an Master resides in his quarters on the hill nearby and Ch’an students are free and indeed encouraged to go anytime to visit and ask questions. Beginners come with enquiries about practice and sitting; experienced cultivators come to have their meditation and insight tested against that of the Master. Most approach personal interviews with trepidation and are shy and hesitant to speak, but these interchanges are lively and spirited at times. The master doesn’t hesitate to use his staff if he feels a timely blow would be beneficial. At times if someone is seen walking around the grounds or coming in through a doorway without keeping the hua-t’ou vividly, the master has been known to come up behind the dreamy offender and render a stroke of the staff or fist. During meals or while monks file out of the dining room it is his habit to scrutinize the assembly, for he can easily see who is forgetful of the Ch’an work.

During his Dharma lecture the Ch’an Master frequently strikes his knotted old wooden staff against the platform, and says, “You hear this sound: what hears?”; and raising the staff overhead, demands, “You see this staff: what sees?” After a pause he adds, “Though not mind, Buddha, or material object, it does exist. If there were only empty nothingness, what would be capable of this hearing or seeing? What is it?” Seeing and hearing being functions of the mind-essence, the cultivators simple sit still and turn the faculties of seeing and hearing inward to perceive or hear the self-nature. Mind and Buddha are not two, but merely nametags on ‘that’ which the enlightened masters coined; that of which they speak remains forever beyond words.

Master Ku San, as inheritor of the Korean lineage of Chogye Mountain, and Dharma successor to Master Hyo Bong, has the responsibility to remind all those who practice Buddhism that all beings live in an insecure world which is subject to perpetual change, and which, by nature, cannot be fully satisfying. Once this is seen and Ch’an training undertaken, his responsibility lies in directing them and finding a successor to his Dharma. Guidance given in the form of the following Formal Dharma Discourses is the heart and apex of his teaching. The subjects covered in the first half of this book are what he calls the ‘dead’ part of his inherited Dharma. When one has awakened from the Great Dream and tasted the Deathless state personally (wherein true bliss, true permanence and true personality are found), one is capable of guiding others to the ‘far shore’. Though one may be enlightened, if one has gained anything, one’s training and realization are incomplete. Why is this so? Because having or not having, gain and not yet gained, are two opposites of a duality which is relevant only in this relative world of appearances. Duality finds no place in the ultimate. For this reason the Ancients said, “All that enters via the front gate cannot become a family treasure.” A master of old said that when one is deluded, the delusion is complete. This was to caution those in semi-enlightened stages. After Enlightenment compassion for other promotes one’s work for the Liberation and benefit of all others.

As far as the intellectual study of the Dharma is concerned, most study the sutras before entering the Ch’an hall where reading is discouraged. However all carry a few favorite works, being mostly records and discourses of earlier masters.

The following lectures are delivered every fortnight on the day following bath, headshaving and clothes-washing day. The content of these lectures is hardly theoretical, but is rather symbolic, and expresses Ch’an thought in a most ideal manner. Nevertheless, only those people who have begun to have personal understanding gained through discarding the discriminative mind will be able to appreciate much. The Masters of today and yesterday made the greatest use of play on words. Chinese Master Hui Hai’s “Most people are like mad dogs which bark at the wind blowing amidst the trees and wild grasses” is an excellent example. Even though awakening is still lacking, those who have some foundation in Buddhist literature and are familiar with the Ch’an approach can begin to appreciate a little of this teaching. However to many they may remain unintelligible.

Recitation of the Pratimoksha and/or chanting of the Bodhisattva Precepts is done on the morning of full and new-moon days, and after lunch the formal Dharma lectures are given. When these lectures are finished all return to the Ch’an hall and continue with the three trainings (sila, samadhi, and prajna) and the struggle to attain insight knowledge and the clear, unsullied mind, which will place them in the position to save all sentient beings.
 

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