Embarking on the Practice
The Supreme Way is not difficult
If only you do not pick and choose.
Neither love nor hate,
And you will clearly understand.
Be off by a hair,
And you are as far from it as heaven from earth.
The sole purpose of a Ch'an retreat is to meditate. You should keep
your attention entirely on practice, without trying to attain any
results. Since many of you have traveled far, or have worked hard to
set aside the time, you have a great deal invested in this retreat. It
is natural that you want to gain something. But once you enter the
retreat, you must put aside any specific hopes.
Practicing with a goal in mind is like trying to catch a feather with a
fan. The more you go after it, the more it eludes you. But if you sneak
up on it slowly, you can grab it. The aim of practice is to develop
patience and forbearance, to train your mind to become calm and stable.
Any attachment or seeking will prevent your mind from settling down.
Today someone told me that the more he worked on the hua-t'ou  the
more tense he felt. It was as though his mind had become knotted up.
His problem is that he wants to see quick results. Pursuing the
hua-t'ou intensely with a desire to get enlightened is like tying
yourself up and then poking yourself with a knife. The more you drive
yourself the more tense you will feel. The same principle applies to
the body. If you react to pain by tensing the body, the pain will only
get worse. If any part of your body feels painful, you should try to
relax it. Any involuntary movement of the body while sitting in
meditation is also due to tension. Thus it is important to constantly
maintain a state of relaxation.
Related to this are the problems that may develop from fixing your
attention on a particular part of the body. For instance, some people
try to make their breath flow smoothly. But in trying to control the
breath, it becomes abnormal.
Don't pay attention to any phenomenon that occurs to the body; if you
are concerned with it, problems will arise. It is the same with the
mind. You will be unable to practice unless you disregard everything
that happens to you mentally. If you feel distressed or pained in any
way, just ignore it. Let it go and return wholeheartedly to the method.
Place your mind directly on the method itself; concern yourself with
The Supreme Way in the first line of the poem refers to the stage of
Buddhahood. The wisdom of the Buddha is not difficult to perceive; it
can be attained in the instant between two thoughts. The reason for
this is that it has never been separate from us. It is always present.
In fact, we all desire to realize this Supreme Way. If so, why are we
unable to attain it?
The second line explains what prevents us. It is because we are always
trying to escape our vexations. Precisely because we want to acquire
the Buddha's insight and merits, we are unable to perceive Buddha
nature. Another reason why we cannot see our Buddha nature is that we
are burdened with ideas. We make distinctions between samsara  and
nirvana , sentient beings and the Buddha, vexations and
enlightenment. These ideas obstruct our perception of Buddha nature.
To paraphrase lines three and four: As soon as you discard your likes
and dislikes, the Way will immediately appear before you. Here,
Seng-Ts'an has something in common with Tao-Hsin, the Fourth Patriarch,
and Hui-Neng, the Sixth Patriarch. The latter two frequently said that
when you stop discriminating between good and evil, you will
immediately perceive your "original face." (In Ch'an "original face"
refers to one's innate Buddha nature.) In other words, you will
understand the Supreme Way.
When sitting, some of you are distracted with pain, or are trying to
fight off drowsiness. At night, maybe you are angry at someone who is
keeping you awake with his snoring. But instead of letting it annoy
you, just observe the snoring. Soon the snores may become hypnotic and
repetitive, actually pleasant sounding. If you start counting the
snores, before you know it you will be asleep.
On the other hand, becoming attached to a certain pleasurable
experience in meditation can also be an obstruction. One student I had
would rock her body during sitting meditation. She felt that she had no
control over the shaking; it just happened spontaneously. Actually,
this was not caused by any physical tension but by a subconscious
motive. The rocking was comfortable to her. You cannot practice
effectively if you give in to such things. By examining them, you will
be able to control the mind.
Holding on to various likes and dislikes keeps you apart from the Way.
Discarding them will bring you in accord with the Way. But if there is
the slightest misconception about this, the distance between you and
the Way will be as great as that between heaven and earth. Don't
misinterpret this and think that since you are not supposed to attach
to likes and dislikes, you should therefore not cultivate the Way. With
this attitude it is useless to come on a Ch'an retreat.
When you first set out to practice you will definitely have a goal in
mind. You may be frustrated with your present condition and aim either
to change yourself or to improve your circumstances. Certainly there is
something you hope to achieve by practicing. You cannot just practice
aimlessly. So practice itself implies some intention or desire. To
fulfill your original intentions, you must constantly keep your mind on
the method of practice. But as you focus on the method you should not
be thinking of what you want to accomplish, what level you want to
reach, or what problems you want to get rid of. Instead, your mind
should be exclusively applied to the method itself, free from all other
There is a saying that is useful for practitioners: "Put down the
myriad thoughts. Take up the practice." The myriad thoughts are
scattered, random, extraneous concerns. The practice is your method of
cultivation. When your mind wanders to extraneous concerns, put them
down as soon as they appear. But should you treat the method in the
same way as a wandering thought -- putting it down as soon as it
appears? No. From moment to moment, put down extraneous thoughts and
return your mind to the method of practice.
One time I asked a student, "Are you having many extraneous thoughts?"
He replied, "Not too many." I said, "I'll bet I know one of them.
You're thinking of your girl friend all the time, aren't you?" He
retorted, "How can you say that?" After the retreat he said,
"Originally, I wasn't thinking of my girl friend at all. But after
Shih-fu  mentioned her I couldn't stop thinking of her." I told him
that he hadn't seen through his problem yet. He may have thought that
his mind was not on his girl friend, but his concern was still there.
Perhaps you try to put down extraneous concerns but find that you just
can't. Every time you put one down, it comes back again. This upsets
you. You keep telling yourself, "Put it down. Put it down." Actually it
doesn't matter if you can't put it down. If you eventually get to the
point where you say to yourself, "It doesn't matter if I can't put it
down," then you will be putting it down. You should not fear failure.
Neither should you embrace it. You may conclude that the retreat is
just not going well for you -- your body is uncomfortable, your mind is
in tumult. You are unable to control yourself. You haven't made the
proper preparations. So you think, why not forget this one and leave
tomorrow? Maybe I'll try again the next time. But don't succumb to this
defeatist attitude. A Chinese proverb says: "A hundred birds in a tree
are not worth one bird in the palm." If you let go of that one bird to
go after the hundred you will end up with nothing. Even though you feel
unprepared and doomed to failure, being here still presents a wonderful
opportunity to practice.
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 hua-t'ou: (Japanese: wato). Literally, "the source of the words," a
method used in the Ch'an school to arouse the great doubt sensation
to induce the mind to break through to the enlightened state. The
practitioner meditates on such baffling questions as: "What is wu?"
"Where am I?" or "Who is reciting Buddha's name?" Often, the phrase
is taken from a kung-an (Japanese: koan).
 samsara: (Sanskrit, "journeying"). The cycle of birth and death
experienced by all sentient beings; the phenomenal world in which
the cycle takes place. Liberation from the samsaric cycle results
in entering the state of nirvana.
 Nirvana: (Sanskrit, "extinction"). In buddhism, the goal of
spiritual practice is to liberate oneself from samsara, the cycle
of birth and death, and to enter the state of unconditioned
 Shih-fu: ("teacher-father"). A term of respect used by a disciple
when referring to or addressing his master.
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