Preface: We have never offered an official Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page on this website, as the number and variety of questions we receive are too numerous and broad. Everyone has a different set of questions. The many writings available on this website will, however, answer the vast majority of questions anyone may have. As a concession to one reader, I have written this FAQ to answer a set of questions he thinks many people may have. Thank you PG. -- Chuan Zhi, December, 2013
1 . What Is Chan Buddhism?
Chan’s origins are rooted in the very earliest spiritual traditions of ancient India, traditions that preceded the Buddha by millennia. The Buddha, some 2500 years ago, did not teach Buddhism – he taught a method of salvation, a way to end suffering, based on his own insights and experiences. Ancient texts suggest that he did not want his teachings to become a religion; rather, he wanted people to follow their own spiritual path of discovery, not him. Nevertheless, Buddhism emerged and soon spread from India to China where it intermingled with the pre-existing spiritual and religious bodies of Taoism and Confucianism. Consequently, Chan Buddhism became an amalgamation of a variety of spiritual disciplines and approaches from diverse cultures and subcultures. According to many, the foundation of Chan is the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. In these he gave a prescription, as a doctor would to someone with a serious illness, that described the affliction of suffering and then laid out a solution for it. That solution came to be known as the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path culminates in the attainment of meditation, from which wisdom and understanding is born, from which suffering is transcended. Chan is a solitary practice which requires, dominantly, motivation (to overcome suffering), perseverance (not giving up, especially during the early stages when it’s the hardest), and devotion or faith (trusting the practice to give results).
2. How does it differ from other forms?
Chan is a mystical discipline of Chinese Buddhism, just as Kabalism is a mystical discipline of Judaism, Sufism is a mystical tradition of Islam, and Gnosticism is a mystical tradition of early Christianity. All forms of mystical practice differ from one another from the viewpoint of the beginner who has yet to discover a “spiritual self”. But they all look the same to one who has attained spiritual insight through any of them. While forms and methods of practice can differ, often according to the culture and religious environment in which they are contained, their paths all lead up the same mountain, should one choose to follow any one of them.
Chan emphasizes meditation and direct inquiry into the nature of being through practices such as the hua-tou, kung-an, and, of course, meditation. Spiritual discovery is dependent solely on our own personal pursuit of it.
3. How do you meditate? What is the correct form, posture, etc.?
Meditation can be described as a state of mind one enters through the practice of intense concentration on a single thing, be it a thought, idea, sound, a candle flame, one’s heartbeat, etc. It is often described as a state of awareness in which the ego-self is transcended, and one in which we encounter the harmony of unity and the essence of non-duality. It is a state which is attained, typically, through practicing any of a variety of techniques which may include breathing exercises (pranayama), physical exercises (e.g., yoga, tai-chi, qi-kong), visualization exercises, etc. The details on how to go about learning to mediate are beyond the scope of this FAQ, but many articles are available on this website to assist the interested person wanting to learn more about it, or how to do it.
4. Do you need a teacher to “do Chan” and if so, why?
By “teacher” most people think of a person who knows more than they do and so can help them come to understand and practice Chan. The “zen master” often takes on this role. In reality, everything that comes to us is a teacher, including books and websites we read, the tree on the forest path we pass as we hike, the cat that jumps onto our lap for affection, the sirens blaring from across the street. When we take a broad view of “teacher” we are on the right track. Assuming that we can only learn and gain an awareness of Self through the guidance of another person generally leads to frustration and often to failure.
With that said, someone who has tread Chan’s path can certainly be a helpful aide for beginners, especially in helping one learn good posture, breathing, techniques for pointing the mind, etc. Such a person can also answer questions that may arise when one begins a practice. But one should never feel dependent upon such a person for success with practice. Success comes from our effort alone.
When the mind is open, not stuck in rigid modes of thinking, filled with opinions and judgments, teachers abound everywhere. And each one has something unique to offer. When the mind is closed, guarded, protected, no teacher can help us.
5. How do you know you have a good Teacher?
For people looking for a teacher, I generally advise looking for one who has no underlying motivation to help, beyond the desire to help. Money, prestige, and power are all too common lures for people in position of authority. The teacher who has nothing to gain or lose by talking with you about Chan is someone who may be helpful. Be careful with teachers who proclaim that they, and only they, know the way. Observe whether a teacher denigrates others, or tries to coerce you into following them.
Always know that the work in Chan must come from yourself, and that nobody else can give it to you or show it to you.
6. Do you need to wear robes and speak Chinese?
Of course not.
7. How/Where do I start?
At the beginning. Zen mind, it’s often said, is beginner’s mind. The beginning is a different spot for every person: regardless of where we are on Zen’s path, we are at the beginning, each and every moment. Where you are standing and breathing and thinking, right now, this is the beginning of all practice. Go into yourself and throw away everything. What is left?