Sheng Yen, Shattering the Great Doubt

Shattering_the_great_doubtI have been practicing Chan Buddhism for over a decade, but diligently only in the last few years. I’d say rather that for a long time I had periods of diligence that over time grew shorter and shorter, until at one point I stopped practicing. It soon enough became clear to me that I needed the practice in my life, I started up again, and while I’m still far from a perfect practitioner I am diligent in a way I never have been in any endeavor over the whole course of my life thus far.

A few months ago I made the drive north to Riverside for the first time in a while to hear, in the flesh, a Dharma talk from my teacher, Gilbert Gutierrez. To make the connection to the book, Gilbert is one of Sheng Yen‘s Dharma heirs, one of, if I’m correct, only seventeen and the only one in the Americas. Gilbert was my introduction to the practice and while I abandoned him for a spell he never abandoned me. Gilbert, that night, taught the huatou method to his group and gave me a huatou on which to work. Fairly soon and in anticipation of a 7-day retreat at Dharma Drum Los Angeles, I bought Shifu’s book–Shifu means “teacher” or “master”–on the method.

Typical of Sheng Yen, the book is of the highest caliber. What I will say is that, like everything I’ve read of his, it is intended not so much as a treatise on a subject but as a means to encourage and develop practice. I don’t feel like I’d give someone one of Shifu’s books as a means to understand the ideas behind Chan, or Buddhism generally. But if one wants to get a sense of what one concretely does as a practioner or how the exchange between teacher and student goes, he’s ideal.

Shattering the Great Doubt consists of transcripts, edited, certainly but not so much that they lose the spontaneity and humor of Shifu’s actual talks. This book, more than others I’ve read from him, retains his humor. That alone is worth a ton. A book like his Faith in Mind is something of a classic, and it too was drawn from talks. This one, and a companion volume on the Silent Illumination method, retain at least in part students’ questions with Shifu’s responses. It reads at least in large parts more like a transcript, which of course it basically is, than a book. This is a good thing for me.

I should say something about the actual method, because while on the one hand I’m writing this simply as part of my larger project of documenting what books I read, on the other hand I would hope that some practitioner stumbles here looking for information on the practice. I’m no Dharma Teacher to be sure, but I’m happy to share experiences.

The huatou method basically consists of the meditator using a particular repeated question as the object of her or his meditation. One simply asks the question over and over in one’s mind. Like other methods, like, most commonly, awareness of breath, the mind inevitably, and generally quite quickly, wanders off from the method, in this case the question. The practice then, at least initially, is to bring he attention back to the method. With extended use the minds gradually settles on the question and rests there. The broader purpose of the method is to rest develop doubt, not a doubt of not believing but a doubt of not knowing but wanting to. The doubt builds and, ultimately, shatters. What’s left is the experience of one’s true nature, as it’s called in Chan.

So, less of a book response than a response to the method itself as I practiced it. Have I gotten results? By all means. I have generally practiced Silent Illumination, or in the Japaneze shikantaze, “just sitting” and taking one’s sitting body as the object of awareness in the method. I worked with the huatou quite a bit. Where Silent Illumination produces in me a wide openness and stillness, the huatou seems, entirely predictably, more focused and with an intensity that Silent Illumination does not encourage. Master Sheng Yen, in the book, talked at points about wielding the huatou as if it were a vajra sword, cutting through delusion. This seems about right. Gilbert said that the danger in Silent Illumination is that precisely because it is such a gentle method one can drift off to all kinds of places relatively easily. The huatou is at some level easier to stay on, and it seems to really effectively clear the mind. Certainly it is a practice worth having in one’s toolbox.


The Zen Teachings of Huang Po, trans. John Blofeld

400000000000000528334_s4I recently did a short retreat, and the immediate result of it was that I want to go on a long retreat. That to me seems a great thing.

I have in the past approached Buddhist texts–in this case the word scripture is appropriate–as I approached other books, or at least other expository texts. I read them to understand some thing, or even more basically to know what some thing is. Huang Po, the text, is nothing if not expository, and the book can suit this purpose.

At this point, though, I don’t find myself reading a book like this to find out what it says as much as I look to it for encouragement and direction in my practice. I have been told by more than one qualified teacher that this is the proper role of scripture in practice: guidance and encouragement. I am all for intellectual understanding but that’s not where I am right now. It makes me feel good. I feel like I am at a point where I am dedicated to practice more than I have ever been, and moreover that I am so based on the firm foundation of results.

But to the book. What struck me immediately upon rereading Huang Po was the clarity of the text. Many Zen texts have a reputation, deserved in a way, as being difficult to understand, or cryptic. It seems to me that much of this problem is that we read these texts as we would a modern expository text when in fact the text such as it is was not written as such. Think The Blue Cliff Record or Linji. The first is a series of teaching tools to be used by a teacher with a dedicated student, historically with monastics. The Blue Cliff Record is used to provoke, not explain, and so we will be confused if we approach it as an explanation. The record of Linji’s teaching, illuminating as it is, is a record of a few talks and many more anecdotal interactions between teacher and student, punctuated with shouts and blows. Outside of the context of dedicated practice, the interactions are nonsensical. If we see Linji working to provoke realization in students, it’s more comprehensible.

The record of Huang Po’s teaching, as it stands in this book, works vastly better as expository text. Without doubt, it wasn’t precisely intended as such. Yet I have not come across a more useful and clear exploration of the use of the term “Mind” as we find it in Zen/Ch’an that Huang Po. Were one to use it academically, the book would be enormously useful.

But for me, the academic use of the book is beside the point. What I will say is that as I read it I found it very comforting and encouraging. Comforting because reading it felt like it was giving a name to experience I’ve had in practice. Aha, I thought, this is familiar. Encouraging because it tells me I’ve hit on something practical that works and that I should keep going.

Sheng Yen, Faith in Mind

I certainly don’t know if Faith in Mind is the book I’d recommend someone read first if they wanted to get a taste of Master Sheng Yen‘s instruction, but of the books of his I’ve read, this feels to me to be the most characteristic.  The form is very typical: there is a complete text, in this case the poem, “Faith in Mind,” attributed to the Third Patriarch of Ch’an, Seng Ts’an, followed by Sheng Yen’s commentary alternating with the relevant portions of the text.

Sheng Yen’s commentary derives from talks given at retreat.  He clarifies his approach in the introduction:

…I did not adopt a scholarly point of view or analytical approach.  It is not a formal commentary on the text; rather, I use the poem as a taking-off point to inspire the practitioner and deal with certain issues that arise during the course of practice. (2)

This, were I to point to any singular virtue Sheng Yen had in his instruction, is precisely why he was a “Master.”  I have not encountered any instruction as useful for actual practice as Sheng Yen’s.  This is not to denigrate anyone else, nor, a worse error, to suggest that Sheng Yen lacks anything as a theoretician.  On the contrary, his persistent focus on the technical aspects of practice, its practical effects, and the ensuing problems those effects present is itself a theoretical perspective of the highest order.

I first read this book early in my practice.  My teacher had been using it in his own instruction, so it seemed like a natural place to go.  I have a distinct memory from that point in my life of getting a very specific instruction from the book that has been of paramount importance in my entire practice since, and which literally saved my mental neck on more than one occasion.  The passage was indeed there on second read:

When practicing, it is sufficient to just keep your mind on the method.  It is unnecessary to reflect on how well you are doing, or to compare whether you are in a better state now than you were half an hour ago…Hold on to one method and go into it as deeply as possible (29-30)

I have never gotten more mileage out of any instruction than I have from these lines.  My only business when I am on the cushion is my method.  Practically, all the stuff people talk about, like the body falling away and only the method remaining, the method falling away, etc., that all may come, but as soon as I have any sense that I can not be on the method, I need to get my ass back to my method.  As soon as there’s any choosing, choose the method.  Such simple instruction, but not at all commonplace.

Hsing Yun, Four Insights for Finding Fulfillment

I sit at one of Hsing Yun’s temples, on Park in San Diego.  One afternoon, I walked into their bookstore, having read earlier in the day some of Huineng’s commentary on the Diamond Sutra, and what stared out at me but this?  I couldn’t help but, contrary to habit, buy the thing.  Just finished it.

I read a post a bit back on another blog, reviewing in a way the book, Democracy’s Dharma.  The author noted:

generally Madsen shows the Taiwanese organizations breaking down along occupational and socioeconomic lines: Tzu Chi for service workers, Fo Guang Shan [Master Hsing Yun‘s organization] for managers and entrepreneurs, and Dharma Drum for artists and academics.

Dharma Drum is my lineage, but living as I do in San Diego I sit at a Fo Guang Shan temple, so how I understand Four Insights for Finding Fulfillment is conditioned by my experience in the two places.  So, I will say that it’s my own issue that my first feeling when going through the book was that this was a very expedient means: lots of discussion of very practical concerns the likes of which I would imagine businesspeople (precisely as the quote above intimated) would have, followed by practical advice, reference to anecdote, and a quote with citation from the Diamond Sutra.  The Sutra itself is an appendix.

They call us practitioners for a reason, because I certainly haven’t got this ego thing worked out.  I will say that what I felt at first in the book was skimming the surface–no discussions about unmediated mind, the nature of mind and phenomena, etc.–built as the book progressed.  The quotes from the Sutra became longer, and the discussions of the substance of the Dharma became lengthier, on their own terms rather than in reference to typical situations one encounters in what we imagine to be real life.  Master Hsing Yun takes a different tack than Sheng Yen did, but he is absolutely dealing with the same thing.

I am at a point now where I have enough confidence in myself to actually make a point about how Buddhism goes down in North America.  I have not lived in the same town as my Dharma teacher for many years now, and though I listen to his talks via the internet, I have also looked for instruction where I am.  Face to face is good.  So, I’ve stumbled into a lot of stuff on my way.

Here’s the point: a bunch of upwardly-mobile young white people started practicing with these amazing Asian teachers, and then, in the name of expedient means, started teaching all kinds of stuff in the name of the Dharma while completely losing the plot.  I’ll put forward that there’s a lot of underlying white nonsense happening: we will drop the archaic Asian superstition and have a Buddhism for the “West.” This is Orientalism at work.

Master Sheng Yen and Gilbert, my teacher–as well as all kinds of other people, like Master Hsing Yun–employ expedient means, but they put the real point

There is no suffering, no cause of suffering
No cessation of suffering, and no path.

in their talks and books.

I am pleased that at this point I can distinguish shit from Shinola.

There I am, with my teacher.  So:

  • You can talk about psychology in your Dharma, but only if you use it as a door to Ch’an, or Zen, or whatever you call it.
  • You can incorporate martial arts into your program, but only if there’s a point where you drop the fighting and experience non-duality.
  • You can tell someone that practicing can help their recovery, but only if you’ll help that person get to the point where their recovery is there to help their practice.
  • Last, Buddhism is not a brand.

An accomplished practitioner here who facilitates a sitting group I attend told me, when I pointed out some of these concerns that he couldn’t see how the Dharma was the Dharma if there wasn’t any satori in it.  He comes from a Japanese lineage but the point is obvious.  Sheng Yen tossed you in the deep end fairly quickly, and Hsing Yun and Thich Nhat Hanh take different tacks, but in all three they put it all on the table so the people who are ready for it can go.  That I can work with.