Read an Excerpt
From Retreat One: Chapter 1: 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 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 pratice and forebearing, 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 intensly 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 nothing else.
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 the 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 the 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 frusterated 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 motives.