Lu Zhen-guan, 2010/11/27
Lecture held at Invisible Man Café in Hongshan District, Wuhan
In the history of China, Chan Buddhism (also known as Zen Buddhism) once experienced a glorious and resplendent era. Within the realm of Chinese culture, Chan Buddhism is an incredibly fascinating domain, representing one of the most dazzling aspects of Chinese culture. The mysterious allure of Chan Buddhism is deeply connected to the enlightenment it advocates. The Chan masters’ quick-witted responses and cryptic language may be unfathomable, yet they are profound and meaningful, continually triggering the springs of our souls and washing away the mundane and worldly.
So, what is it that one becomes enlightened to in Chan Buddhism? Why does enlightenment transform ordinary people into sages? How do Chan masters verify their Dharma-attained disciples, passing on the teachings from generation to generation and forming the lineage of Chan Buddhism?
I. What is “Chan”
The founder of Chan Buddhism, Bodhidharma, once called upon four disciples to present their learnings. Huike, one of the disciples, didn’t say anything but simply stepped forward and bowed, receiving Bodhidharma’s seal of approval. The reason why Huike was granted the seal and not the other disciples was that only the one who received the seal was enlightened. Chan Buddhism is passed down from generation to generation in this way, transmitting heart to heart and forming a lineage.
Chan Buddhism originated in India and was not widely propagated in China until the time of Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch during the Tang Dynasty, when it flourished greatly. The Song Dynasty was the most prosperous period for Chan Buddhism. However, it began to decline during the Yuan Dynasty, and by the Ming and Qing Dynasties, there were only a few enlightened individuals left. Modern people’s misunderstandings of Chan Buddhism are particularly serious. Some scholars believe that Chan Buddhism is a heterodox doctrine, belonging to the Brahminism, or that it borrows the shell of Buddhism, while attributing its essence to Taoism.
To understand Chan Buddhism, one should start with a well-known verse that many people are familiar with: “A special transmission outside the teachings, not dependent on words and letters, directly pointing to the human mind, and seeing one’s nature to become a Buddha.” The teachings refer to the edification of language and text, while Chan directly points to the pure original mind without the use of language or text, allowing people to realize their true nature and ultimately become Buddhas. How can one point without using language or text? It is through skillful means, such as a staff or a shout. For example, the Chan master Dahui Zonggao liked to hold a bamboo brush, which is equivalent to a disciplinary ruler. If someone asked, “What is a Buddha?” before they even finished the question, the bamboo brush might have already struck them. This is a skillful means. Another example is when Dahui Zonggao would sometimes pick up the bamboo brush and ask his disciples, “If I call it a bamboo brush, it’s touching; if I don’t call it a bamboo brush, it’s turning away; what should I call it?” This is a koan. A koan is the process of a Chan master guiding students, recorded as public documents. Although koans are not entirely devoid of language and text, the key point lies in the part without language or text. Even though it is difficult to make sense of the text, understanding a koan still requires first understanding the meaning of the language and text, before further contemplation can be undertaken.
In the koan mentioned above, “calling it a bamboo brush touches” refers to coming into conflict with the ultimate truth, as the ultimate truth is beyond words and forms. Linji Chan master’s Dharma-transmission verse states: “How can you go along the flow without stopping? The true illumination is boundless, words seem different; beyond form and name, people don’t accept it, when the hair is blown away, the grindstone is urgently needed.” Regarding being beyond words and forms, you can also refer to the “Chapter on Entering the Non-Dual Dharma Gate” in the Vimalakirti Sutra, where 32 Bodhisattvas discuss what it means to enter the Non-Dual Dharma Gate. When it’s Manjushri Bodhisattva’s turn, he says that to enter the Non-Dual Dharma Gate, one must leave behind all language, text, and forms. Manjushri Bodhisattva asks Vimalakirti layman what it means to enter the Non-Dual Dharma Gate, but Vimalakirti remains silent and doesn’t speak. Manjushri praises Vimalakirti for truly leaving behind language, text, and forms, and directly revealing the ultimate reality. In contrast, the previous Bodhisattvas are teaching with language and text.
Thus, when the Chan master takes out this bamboo brush, if you call it a bamboo brush, you come into conflict with the realm of ultimate reality, because the realm of ultimate reality is beyond words and forms. If you say it’s not a bamboo brush, you violate the conventional truth. The conventional truth is the common understanding of wise people in the world. “What does it mean?” is a question asking for your understanding of the meaning.
This move was actually first used by Chan master Shoushan Shengnian. He liked to hold a bamboo brush and confront people everywhere. Later, a Chan master named Ye Xian Guisheng snatched the bamboo brush, broke it, and threw it on the ground. At this point, Shoushan Shengnian shouted loudly: “Blind!” (as if to say: “You blind fool!”) But Ye Xian Guisheng wasn’t scared by the shout, he still bowed to Shoushan Shengnian and left. Later, the history of the Chan school recognized him as a Dharma heir of Shoushan Shengnian.
We won’t try to explain the koan here. Not explaining is actually wiser; once you explain, you fall into failure. During the Republic of China era, a legal scholar named Wu Jingxiong wrote “The Golden Age of Chan Studies”, pioneering the modern interpretation of koans. He explained many koans, each with a different interpretation. Some people criticized this as “sawing open a steelyard balance”, which means taking a saw to cut open a steelyard balance to see if it is also iron inside. People have already said that one should go beyond words and forms, but he still wants to dwell in language and text. If language and text were enough, why wouldn’t the Chan masters speak for themselves?
From the perspective of the teachings, the mind that Chan Buddhism awakens to, or the mind directly pointed to, is the intrinsically pure mind. Chan Buddhism also has its own revered scriptures. According to records, Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch, passed on a four-volume version of the Lankavatara Sutra to Huike, the Second Patriarch, and told him to use it to seal the mind. The mind mentioned in the Lankavatara Sutra is the intrinsically pure mind. The intrinsically pure mind has many other names, such as Alaya consciousness, the eighth consciousness, and so on. Another sect that venerates the Lankavatara Sutra – the Yogacara School – has a treatise called the “Treatise on Establishing the Consciousness-Only,” which explicitly states that the Mahayana path of seeing is the realization of the Alaya consciousness. Therefore, we can confirm from the sutras and treatises that the enlightenment of Chan Buddhism is the realization of the Alaya consciousness.
Chan Buddhism advocates “a separate transmission outside the teachings, not relying on written words,” meaning that Chan masters can directly point out the intrinsically pure mind without using language or text, enabling people to attain enlightenment. “Outside the teachings” refers to “beyond language and text,” and should not be misunderstood as “outside of Buddhism.”
2. Why does discovering objective truth lead to liberation from birth and death?
In “The Enlightenment and Lineage of Chan Buddhism,” I wrote: “The enlightenment of Chan Buddhism is the realization of the ālayavijñāna(Alaya consciousness). The realization of the ālayavijñāna is the discovery of an objective fact, which allows a person to liberate themselves from birth and death.” This issue is related to the liberation from birth and death, and it is of great importance. Why does discovering objective truth lead to liberation from birth and death? This is the second question we will address today.
Last time at the reading club, I shared a story. There was a man who always thought he was a cockroach, so he was very afraid of chickens. Eventually, the doctor managed to convince him: “You are a human being, not a cockroach.” So the doctor said, “Now that you know, you can go home!” However, not long after the man left, he saw a chicken on the road and ran back to the hospital in fear. The doctor asked him, “Didn’t you already realize that you are a human, not a cockroach? Why are you still afraid of chickens?” The man replied, “I know I am a human, not a cockroach, but the chickens outside don’t know that!” This is a joke, but it is related to the principle of liberation. People become troubled because they do not understand the truth.
The truth we are about to discuss is not only talked about in Buddhism, but has also been discovered by worldly wise people and is reflected in movies and novels.
Here’s a line from a movie, see if you remember it: “Have you ever looked at this world and marveled at its perfection and the creator’s genius? Billions of people live their lives in a daze, completely ignorant.” Do you remember which movie this is from? It is a line from the 1999 movie “The Matrix.” Let me read a few more lines.
Trinity, the female protagonist: “I know why you’re here, and what you’re doing. I know that you toss and turn at night, alone every day, working at your computer. You’re looking for him. I’ve been looking for the same person, and when he found me, he said that in fact, I wasn’t looking for him, but for an answer. A question drives us, Neo! This question brought you here.” This passage is saying that we actually have many doubts about life and existence, and we must resolve these doubts to find peace.
Trinity takes Neo to meet Morpheus, the man in the coat and sunglasses. Morpheus tells him, “The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us, even in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” Neo asks, “What truth?” Morpheus replies, “You are a slave. From the moment you were born, you have been living in a prison without any awareness, a prison for your mind.”
Next, Morpheus presents two differently colored pills and tells Neo that if he takes one of them, he will reveal the truth to him, adding specifically, “Remember, all I can offer you is the truth, nothing more.”
Later, when Neo is pulled out of the battery pod, he discovers that the world is nothing like he had imagined. His body is full of sockets, with wires connected to them, which in turn connect to a computer. The world he had known was nothing more than a simulated image created by the computer. What a shocking truth!
If our world is also a virtual one like this, how would you feel if the handsome man or beautiful woman you see is just a computer-generated person? I think, perhaps you may have been particularly infatuated with this person, or been especially attached to a certain status or position. If this were the case, would you still want to pursue it? If it could be proven now that you are actually living in such a dream, you would probably be quite shocked!
Morpheus arranged a course for Neo, allowing him to return to the virtual world. This virtual world was created by the rebels using a computer. In the real world, aboard the spaceship, Neo was bald and wore ragged clothes, and Morpheus and the others were dressed similarly. However, once in the virtual world, Morpheus and Neo were dressed splendidly, and Neo’s hair had grown out. Neo touched a high-backed chair in the virtual world and asked, “This isn’t real?” He touched various objects, saying, “None of these are real!”
At that point, Morpheus said, “What is reality? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about touch, smell, taste, and sight, those are all electronic signals received by the brain. The real world you think you know is actually an interactive virtual world—we call it the ‘Matrix.’ You’ve been living in a dream world, Neo!” If you truly understand this statement, you would be shocked because, in reality, we are also living in a virtual world.
For example, the light from this electric lamp does not directly reach your brain, does it? That’s because your brain is wrapped in bone and flesh. The light can only reach our retinas, and it must be transmitted by the optic nerve to the brain, making you feel as if you are seeing a lamp. This means there is a mechanism in your brain that can simulate external images, somewhat like a television.
Now, let’s look at this cup. You wouldn’t say this cup is an illusion, why? Because you can see it, touch it, pick it up, and drink the water inside. But has your brain actually come into contact with the light? Think about this question, and it’s clear that it hasn’t. That is to say, through corresponding transformations, another image is formed in your brain, just like a television image. The image of me you see now is also created by you, not directly observed by you.
The same goes for hearing. Sound waves first touch the ear, then are transmitted through nerves to your brain. Once they reach your brain, they are no longer the original sound waves. The same applies to your nose, tongue, and body. When I knock on this table, my brain does not touch it, so it’s clear that touch is also simulated. In that case, are you living in a dream? Are the realms you’re experiencing now the same as a dream?
What is the difference between dreaming and being awake? In dreams, the images do not correspond to the physical world. When you are awake, your images correspond to the physical world. Nevertheless, what you see is still virtual. In this sense, there is no difference between reality and dreams.
The second issue: is what you see now the same as a dream? We can say that there are similarities and differences. Let’s not deny the external world for now. You can see this cup, and so can I; let’s assume it exists in an objective physical world. However, the cup you see is actually your subjective perception. We can use television as an example. There are two types of TV programs: live broadcasts and pre-recorded shows. Live broadcasts, such as sports games or news events, show real-time images captured by a camera. Pre-recorded shows, like animations, can be very imaginative, created by animators or directors using various camera angles. These two types of programs are different.
There are also subtle differences to consider. Think about the difference between modern color TVs and early black-and-white TVs. If my conversion mechanism is better, it’s in color. If your conversion function is worse, it’s in black and white. Is there such a thing? There was once a painter who saw everything in color. After a car accident, everything he saw turned black and white. Similarly, we eat food every day. You taste it one way, but can you be sure that others taste it the same way? Not necessarily, right? Because it undergoes a simulated conversion, which is subjective. For example, you see me looking like this, but others may see me differently, right? They might think I’m handsome, while you think I’m ugly. Everyone perceives things differently. It’s not a psychological effect but rather a difference in conversion. Just as different TV brands and models display slightly different images, creating the question: what does the physical world truly look like? You simply don’t know.
Therefore, we can say that all living beings in the world, including non-human life forms, have no way of accessing the real world. What the real world actually looks like remains unknown to anyone.
Let’s discuss another issue. What if this is all just a dream? If your life is just a dream, what would you do? Is this a possibility? Have you seen the movie “Inception”? The protagonist always remembers that he has two lovely children waiting for him in the real world, but his wife believes the dream world is the real one. He wants to return to the real world from the dream, but he knows that he must die in the dream to return. So he has to convince his wife to recognize the illusion and take the right actions. However, after returning to the real world, his wife still believes it is a dream, so she tells the protagonist, “We must die in this world to return to the real one.” As a result, his wife commits suicide in the real world.
The consequences of not being able to distinguish between reality and illusion can be severe. Can you tell the difference?
3. “I” and “What I perceive”
What we observe and the tool we use to observe are two different things. When we say “I see this cup,” the “I” here is the observing subject, while the cup is the object perceived by “I.” The observing “I” is simply referred to as “I,” while the cup, house, world, etc. that “I” see are called “what I perceive” (or “my domain”). I exist in this world and can recognize the external world, so this is me. When I go to your house and see the sofa, although it belongs to you, it is what I perceive, so it is within the scope of “my domain.” You, as a person, are also part of “my domain” because you are what I see. The same applies to you: the part of you that can see, hear, feel, and do things is your “I,” the subject; the world you recognize is the object, which is “what you perceive.”
Both “The Matrix” and “Inception” explore the realm of perception, or “what I perceive.” In these two films, the characters are aware that they are in a virtual world or a dream, so the realm of perception appears dreamlike to them. However, they believe that the observing subject is “real”. Surprisingly, in Wang Jinkang’s novel “The Seven Layers of Shell,” even this “I” is fake! The theoretical breakthrough in this novel far surpasses “The Matrix” and “Inception.”
In the novel “Seven Layers of Shell,” there is a character named Wu Zhong, who is a Chinese scientist at a research base in the United States. Wu Zhong invites his brother-in-law, Gan Youming, to the research base to undergo a test, during which he must remove all his clothes and put on something called a “shell.” The shell is a light and soft garment with a helmet, covered with many neural sensors that wrap around the person’s entire body. The shell is connected to a large computer, which is used to simulate a virtual world. Once wearing the shell, everything Gan Youming experiences is part of the virtual world.
The research base is looking for people to test the invulnerability of their virtual world technology. The testing process involves having a person put on the shell and then sending them into the virtual world. If the tester finds any flaws in the virtual world, they can call for a halt. Then, the staff will bring them back to the real world and remove their shell. Successful testers can earn a substantial cash prize.
Gan Youming’s first entry into the virtual world takes place in the ocean, where he encounters a poisonous owl and is nearly killed before he calls for a halt. The staff then remove his shell. However, the act of removing the shell could also be simulated. Gan Youming must repeatedly determine whether he is in the real world or the virtual world.
At first, Gan Youming says, “This is too easy!” Wu Zhong tells him that the virtual world is a closed world, and people inside it have no idea whether they are moving or not. For example, if a spaceship travels in a straight line at the speed of light, the people inside it would have no idea they are moving at light speed relative to the outside world unless the spaceship has a window that allows them to see external reference points. However, the virtual world does not have such a window.
Gan Youming then says, “My childhood memories are something a computer could never know! For example, the computer cannot possibly know what my mother looks like, right?” Wu Zhong replies, “You’re right. But as soon as you think about recalling past events, the computer can immediately detect it and seamlessly incorporate your memories into the virtual world. In this way, you still can’t tell the difference.”
The novel ends with Gan Youming removing the shell from his body and receiving the cash prize, but he still believes he remains in the virtual world. Why is that? To him, there is no difference between reality and the virtual world.
There is no clear distinction between dreams and reality, so very few people can tell when they are dreaming. One way to determine if you are dreaming is to pinch yourself and see if it hurts; if it doesn’t hurt, you are dreaming. However, some dreams can be painful. I have a friend who once dreamt of being dragged to hell by a demon, across a floor covered in nails. He could feel his flesh being torn and the excruciating pain of his insides being dragged along the ground. At that time, he couldn’t tell that it was a dream.
If you hadn’t attended today’s lecture, you might never have thought about these issues. This demonstrates that the simulation mechanism in our brain is extremely powerful, rivaling the supercomputers in novels. The supercomputers in novels may even allow you to find flaws, but if you have never been in contact with the real world from childhood to adulthood, you would never know.
4. The “Truth” Discovered by Buddhism
Next, let’s talk about the movie “The Truman Show.” There’s a child named Truman who was sold to a company when he was still a fertilized egg. After birth, he was sent to an island where everyone around him was an actor, without exception, and he was kept in the dark. The island was filled with cameras, broadcasting his life in real-time to people all over the world. It was a non-stop show with a very high viewership worldwide.
Truman’s situation was horrifying. His best friend, who he grew up with, was acting while sharing intimate conversations with him. Every time he came home, his wife would say to him, “Look, I bought something new. This thing has this function…” Truman always felt something was off; in fact, she was advertising, which was the source of funding for the TV program.
When he discovered the truth, were there any feelings left? There were none. From the moment he met his wife, to the declaration of love and their marriage, everything was an act. How heartbreaking is that!
Returning to our original topic, why does discovering the truth relieve suffering? Suppose you used to love someone deeply, and later found out that she was just acting, so you no longer love her. For example, a woman in a nightclub tells you every time you visit, “I love you so much!” Later, you find out, “She just wants my money.” When you know the truth, you’ll say, “Forget it! I don’t want to be a fool anymore.” Is this a kind of liberation? It is; knowing partial truth provides temporary relief.
If you know the core truth of life and existence, you completely break free, and the difference is enormous. The enlightenment and liberation mentioned in Chan Buddhism belong to this category, and they become the starting point for “turning from ordinary to saintly.” You’ll find that everything you were once attached to was all illusory. Competing for fame and fortune and satisfying various desires with despicable means will seem utterly pointless. At this point, your mindset, attitude, and behavioral orientation will all undergo a comprehensive change.
Buddhism says that there is an origin capable of producing myriad phenomena, called the innate pure mind, the eighth consciousness, and so on, and it has many names. In your quest for understanding, you suddenly discover the core truth: not only is the external environment created by this entity, but the subject capable of thinking and recognizing the external environment, which you call “I,” is also created by the innate pure mind. After discovering these two points, you’ll be greatly shocked and moved, thinking, “Since that’s the case, why should I struggle to maintain this false ‘I’?”
Don’t think that I’m only using movies and novels to talk about this. Although the plots of movies and novels are fictional, the theories they are based on are consistent with reality. For example, you don’t directly see objects, which everyone should be able to confirm. More than 2,500 years ago, the Buddha explained that the process of cognition is divided into two stages: the inner six entrances and the outer six entrances. The outer six entrances are form, sound, smell, taste, touch, and phenomena, while the inner six entrances are the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. For example, when light hits the retina, it is called the form entrance. Then, from the retina, it is transmitted through nerves to the brain, where it forms something that allows your visual consciousness and mental consciousness to recognize, called the eye entrance. A few hundred years ago, Western philosophers also discovered this truth.
Buddhist scriptures also say that the reason we believe there is an “I” and form various paranoid personalities is actually the result of mistaking the false for the truth. Conversely, if you can discover the core truth, you can attain enlightenment. The way enlightened people view life and the world is completely different from ordinary people. As the “Diamond Sutra” says, “All conditioned phenomena are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, and shadows, like dewdrops and lightning. They should be contemplated in this way.” The “Song of Enlightenment” says, “In dreams, there are clearly six realms; after awakening, the vast universe is empty.”
Simply put, Chan enlightenment is the discovery of the core truth: both the “I” that can perceive the world and the world perceived by the “I” are images born from the eighth consciousness (the innate pure mind). Since both the “I” and what it perceives are born from the eighth consciousness, they blend together, forming what is called the “One True Dharma Realm.” In the One True Dharma Realm, there is no distinction between the “I” and what it perceives, and there is no suffering and sorrow. It is the innate pure Nirvana. This is the ultimate explanation that can be given using language and words. In reality, the liberated state in which enlightened people dwell is “beyond words and thoughts.” This can only be known through direct experience and cannot be described using language.
Today, due to limited time, I can only give a brief introduction. If you are interested, please refer to “Enlightenment and Lineage in Chan Buddhism” and “An Introduction on the Positivist Buddhism.” Thank you, everyone!