An Interview with Chuan Zhi from Non Duality Magazine, 12/27/2013

Chuan Zhi: This is a good subject for public discussion – one that’s usually avoided. I wrote on a related subject recently that may address some of the questions/issues people have on the topic of sexual intimacy, and some of the topics you may want to investigate: Yearning to be Met

NDM: Thanks, yes, I see. Yes, it does touch on many of the things I would like to address. What if I ask you about this part from your article?

"In China there are sexual relations within monasteries. They are known to go on yet often overlooked and rarely discussed, unless they are adequately blatant: then the monks or nuns may be expelled. While generally taboo, sex is a common thing in all religions. Holmes-Welch tell a story of the monk, “the Venerable Miao-lien” who built the Chi-le Ssu branch temple in Penang. For years there was gossip “of orgies and secret underground tunnels used for vicious purposes”. In 1907 Miao-lien severed off “the whole of his genitalia with a large vegetable chopper.” He died some weeks later.*

* The Practice of Chinese Buddhism 1900-1950, Holmes Welsch, p. 117, Copyright 1967 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

NDM: By taboo, do you mean just sexual relations between the nuns and monks or something else?

Chuan Zhi: Homosexual and heterosexual.

NDM: Ok, thanks.

Chuan Zhi: You know, in China the monasteries, some of them, can have thousands of monks/nuns, at least it has been that way in the past. Most of the people in them are very young - late teens and early twenties. Many of them are there to spend a year or two before going off and getting a job to help support their family. Their motives for being there are not those that you might more commonly expect in the West -- to embrace a spiritual discipline. Many are there to "learn discipline" in accordance with the wishes of their families. They are expected to follow all the rules and if they don't they are reprimanded, often in front of the rest of the sangha. So the "game" (for some) is to get away with breaking the rules when nobody is looking. And, as you know, young boys like adrenaline rushes from risk-taking and often feel themselves impervious to harm. There’s a reason there are so many rules one must follow, vows one must take, to be accepted into the monastic community. It helps lessen the chaos.

NDM: Yes, can only imagine what goes on. How is homosexuality seen in the Zen and Chan tradition by the way?

Chuan Zhi: I don't really know. It's pretty off limits for discussion. I asked people about it in China and they acknowledged it, and that it's a well-known thing in monasteries, but nobody would talk about it. From my own point of view it makes no difference what sexual preference someone has. Either way, the thing is to stop projecting and integrate male/female within one's own being. I think that gay/lesbian people, at least some, may have an extra hurdle insofar as many of them identify themselves so strongly with their sexual orientation that they get locked into defining themselves according to that. Breaking away from that lock can be pretty hard for some.

NDM: In the Theravada tradition, Nibbana is more than simply saying one is “non dual awareness”, or “Buddha nature” or having a "oneness experience" or some sort of glimpse.

Using the 10 fetters or "four path model" as a measuring stick, or road map, those things would only be considered attaining “stream entry” at best or and having overcoming the first few 3 fetters, "false Identity view" and so on.

Chaun Zhi: I can't speak for the Theravada tradition. I’m not sure I can speak for any Buddhist "tradition"... They are all so different. I think they have to be taken for what they are independently, and not compared with one another. They each use different paradigms, to lesser or greater degrees. But when one starts looking at the spiritual essence of these different traditions, they all look the same. It’s just when looking at their surface features that they can look so extremely different. Humans and mice look pretty different, but 99% of mouse genes have precise analogues to those of humans ... the fruit fly shares 60% of its DNA with humans. Looks can be pretty deceiving! It’s more illuminating to see commonalities than differences.

I prefer the metaphor of transcendence. We transcend our “fetters” if you will, go beyond them, rather than overcoming them. Overcoming implies a battle of some sort. Transcendence implies letting things fall away naturally … letting go. Transcendence is a natural progression though life. When it ceases, it is unnatural. Consider the infant who cries and tantrums when hungry or thirsty in order to get nourishment. We consider this to be completely acceptable behavior, no? Then he grows into a young child and can talk to request food, or drink, yet he still cries and tantrums because it’s conditioned into him and he knows it works. This is not acceptable behavior anymore. But with time the tantruming falls away by itself and he uses his new skills of speech to request nourishment. We are perpetually in transition, letting go of old behaviors which no longer serve us, and moving on to new ones. When this process stops is when we get stuck, stop developing and growing.

NDM: Do you feel it is possible to overcome the fetters of sensual desire and ill will without being a celibate renunciate and living in a monastery setting? For example if one is a house holder and engaging in sexual activity, will this keep them stuck,or from progressing along the path?

Chaun Zhi: It all depends on the person. For some yes, for others, no. The precepts are there to help us focus on the spiritual path and not get sidetracked. An essential ingredient to spiritual growth is detachment. Relations with other people, sexual or otherwise, lead to attachments, but sexual relations usually lead to more intense and complicated relationships. From the Chan point of view, the objective is to identify the desire and then turn it off, not succumb to it. This is what we do with other things too. We train ourselves to not desire by practicing first identifying the desire, then turning it off. Not easy to do, especially for beginners. There has to be a tremendous DESIRE to want to do it!

I have never heard of a Buddhist tradition, at least in the Chinese or Indian traditions, that required celibacy for one to be a Buddhist. Usually one becomes celibate by choice. That’s not necessarily the case however when one rises in “rank” within a Buddhist tradition. Then there is the expectation of celibacy, whether the person is celibate or not.

NDM: You mentioned in your article that a Roshi is a human being and not perfect, but in the Theravada tradition they speak of arahants, one who is perfected. No trace of desire, aversion or delusion at all.

Chau Zhi: I think you are mixing up religions. “Roshi” is the typical term for a Japanese Zen teacher, and this is Mahayana, not Theravada.

NDM: So as long as one still has a trace of these sexual desires, is it wise to even teach in today’s world with all the temptations out there?

Chau Zhi: People come to religion for different reasons. People generally get out of it what they want to get out of it, not what a "teacher" wants them to so much. The spiritual journey requires great sacrifice, great discipline, and great desire to escape from a life of hell, from samsara. It's the intense desire to escape from a living hell that gives the spiritual aspirant the fuel he or she needs to make progress. If all we want to do is sit with a group and be peaceful, that's fine, but we will stay stuck in that place, and continue to be pulled this way and that by our desires, be they sexual or otherwise. We can also develop new attachments to the group, teacher, and forms of practice. This isn't something that's new to this day and age. It's a simple aspect of human nature. It’s one thing to teach a spiritual discipline, and another for one to walk it. But to have the teachings available for people who are ready for them is a wonderful thing, is it not?

On a related note, it may be helpful to look at the sexual aspect from the point of view of spiritual stages of development. At the beginning, when we enter puberty, we discover our sexuality. Hormones rage, we are confused, shy, embarrassed. Or other emotions may be present. Over time we "get comfortable" with our sexual nature, but our relationship with sex is dichotomous. Male and Female are seen as two distinct things. Coming together between people is experienced as an ecstatic merging of male and female, and a commensurate sense of oneness is felt during the sexual act. This urge for oneness is what drives people to come together and have babies and propagate the species. What happens on the spiritual journey, when we stop projecting upon other people, is that male and female merge within us. The dichotomy of male/female dissolves. The beloved is within our own being, not something extraneous to us that we need to seek. We refer to this stage as divine marriage and it's generally experienced after long periods of samadhi (although I don't like to use this term because it means different things to different people). Until one has gotten this far though, the psyche is still subject to being stirred by sexual desires for others and it's a primary spot where people get stuck, including many "spiritual teachers". As long as we don't get stuck on life's journey, we naturally progress though these successive stages of sexuality. Unfortunately, getting stuck is the norm for the vast majority of us.

Getting back to your question relating to whether it’s wise to teach the Dharma. There is frequently a lot of role-playing that goes on in Zen training centers. Many Zen teachers play the role of Buddha and the students are encouraged to venerate the teacher and supplicate to him or her. This establishes the student’s role and sets up a very strong teacher-student dynamic in which the student projects the saint or savior archetype upon the teacher, elevating him/her, idealistically, to supra-human status. This goes counter to Chan’s approach of detachment, and of pointing the questioning mind inward on itself. In Chan the answers are not found from the teacher, but from the Self. The teacher and the taught are one and the same. The most a teacher can do is inspire, offer support and encouragement, and offer the tools needed to do the work.

NDM: In the Taoist traditions, they also speak of it this way. Balancing the yin and yang chi and so on, until you begin sort of androgynous or asexual. Like being a child or prepubescent. How much do you feel that Chan was influenced by the Taoist traditions?

Chaun Zhi: It's not like being a child or prepubescent ... that would imply non-sexual altogether. Androgyny is a state of harmony between male and female, not the absence of either/both. It’s the relationship between Guest and Host. In Chinese monasteries when a monk enters into the androgynous state, divine union, they are permitted to be secluded for as long as they desire. They are given special quarters and permitted to be excused from daily chores and rituals, etc. Food and water are brought to them and they may continue like this for days or weeks—as long as it takes to complete integration.

I'm not a scholar, but my sense is that there, even today, are differences between the ways people practice Chan -- some people are more greatly influenced by Taoist teachings than others. I have known Chan teachers who encourage their students to avoid the Qi generating exercises because "they create too much heat" and others who insist that the heat is what you want. There are Indian Yogis who will sit outside in the snow naked and compete with each other to see who can melt the most snow around them. But considering that Bodhidharma, considered the founder of Chinese Chan, developed and taught many Qi forms, it may not be necessary to draw distinctions between Taoist forms and Buddhist forms of Qi exercises. Both use them. And likely both were influenced by Indian Yogic traditions which developed such practices to high levels long before.

NDM: Are you familiar with some of the practices that Bodhidharma taught like Xi Shui Jing?

Chaun Zhi: To some degree. Contemporary forms of Chi Kung and Tai Chi are likely modern descendants of Bodhidharma's teachings, although the origins of all these forms are likely lost to history. There are those who argue that they are of purely Taoist origin, however, there is also archaeological evidence to suggest that similar forms predated Bodhidharma by millennia. Xi Shui Jing, at least as people know of it today, shares many similarities to contemporary forms of Tai Chi and Chi Kung. But I should leave this subject to those who know more about it that I.

NDM: The reason for much of these comparisons, is do you feel that some traditions such as Theravada (way of the elders) could be a much wiser path to take for some practitioners?

Chaun Zhi: Wise? Life is a big experiment. We learn as we go. We make mistakes. We try something and either go with it or leave it behind. And that's generally how we learn. So I would say it's wise to try things and make mistakes. For some people, Chan works extremely well, for others, not so much. Same with Theravada. Religion is a complex thing as it relates to our social and psychological matrix. Every person is unique and has the "responsibility" to discover for themselves the path they lead. Nobody can do it for us. There is no "right" path. There is only the life we live. And how that unfolds for each of us is unique.

NDM: Maybe the gradual path or the Noble Eight Fold path (in the Pali suttas) works better than a direct path like Zen/Chan? Or even Vajrayana, tantrayana, Advaita Vedanta, contemporary non duality, or some of these traditions that try and take a short cut, so to speak and end up running into all sorts of problems later on. Like in these links below.






Chaun Zhi: I find this a bit confusing. Chan's foundation is with the Noble Eightfold Path. There are no shortcuts. I think part of the problem is that people see Zen/Chan as something they can begin with. But it's not that way. It's something that one grows into. People come to Zen thinking it is something it's not. Many come to it for social reasons. They want to belong to a group, feel a connection with other people, etc. This is not Right Purpose in the spiritual sense. There was a great movie some years back, Eyes Wide Shut, with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. People join groups before they know what they're getting into. For some, Zen is “sexy”, so they are attracted to it and want to join up. Some of these people end up turning the whole thing upside down--making Zen out to be something that it's not. Then all sorts of problems happen.

NDM: Are these traditions going about this back to front, meaning instead of trying to get sudden “enlightenment” and so on and then gradually cultivate the mind? Sort of like building a house on a shoddy foundation. “sudden enlightenment” followed by “gradual cultivation.” Korean Zen Master Bojo Jinul (1158-1210)

Chaun Zhi: It all has to do with where a person is on the path. When the mind and spirit/soul are ripe, sudden enlightenment happens naturally. You don't even need to do Zen for it. Many who "do Zen" never reach that place because they get stuck in the forms of practice. But enlightenment should not be looked at as a goal, but as an event that happens on the path ... there are countless events that happen on the path, before and after the enlightenment experience, and they are all just as important and valuable. One can't jump over any of them because one leads to the next. Some teachers want people to start at the middle or at the end, or somewhere not where the person is. That sets them up for stagnation (and frustration), at least in terms of spiritual growth.

You speak of "traditions", but the Zen "tradition" is very different in the US from that in Japan, which is very different from that in Korea, and similarly, from that in China. There is no longer any singular "Chan Tradition", if there ever was one. The Chan “tradition” is for people to teach and practice it from their own unique individual perspectives, from the understanding they develop through their practice. I am reminded of a talk Hsu Yun gave to a large group of people at a two week Chan retreat. He started off saying that he had nothing new to say, that the great masters of the past said it all, etc., and that all he could do was to quote them. Then he talked on for a long time never quoting anyone! He expressed the Buddha Dharma in his own words, according to his own sensibilities. He brought it to life. (According to Master Jy Din, one of Hsu Yun’s disciples, Hsu Yun had an enormous sense of humor.)

NDM: Can one be "fully enlightened", an arhant, in the Chan tradition and still have sex?

Chaun Zhi: So, you are saying that "fully enlightened" = arhant? What is "fully enlightened"? Is there an "end" to enlightenment? I hope not. So, can an awake (i.e., enlightened) person have sex? I don't see why not. It's an essential aspect of being human. Is an arhant human? But if you ask if one who has experienced Samadhi and exists in an androgynous state can have sex, I would say, why would he/she want to? :-)

NDM: They say that an arahant has overcome these 10 fetters below:

The Pali canon's Sutta Pitaka identifies ten "fetters of becoming"

1.            belief in a self (Pali: sakkāya-ditthi

2.            doubt or uncertainty, especially about the teachings (vicikicchā)

3.            attachment to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāso)

4.            sensual desire (kāmacchando)

5.            ill will (vyāpādo or byāpādo) lust for material existence, lust for material rebirth (rūparāgo)

6.            lust for immaterial existence, lust for rebirth in a formless realm (arūparāgo)

7.            conceit (māna)

8.            restlessness (uddhacca)

9.            ignorance (avijjā)

Meaning if one is still having sex, they will be reborn, at least once more up to 7 times. They say an arahant is supra human more or less.

Chaun Zhi: The context here is Theravada Buddhism, and I prefer not to speak for or toward this Buddhist tradition as it has different approaches than I am familiar with, or comfortable with. With that said, lust is certainly the driver for most people to have sex, as well as to acquire things like wealth and status, etc.

But emotions, in general, are natural to the human animal species. We are hungry so we eat. Thirsty so we drink. Angry so we yell. Sad so we cry. Who is to say it is good or bad? To live life without emotions would be rather dull, not to suggest that it's possible in the first place. The brain is wired to have emotional responses. Religions, all of them, are filled with archetypal images depicted in statues, in writings, etc, which inspire us toward higher levels of being, of awareness. That is their purpose. To inspire. When people take on the role of an archetype all sorts of problems come about. You showed some links that testify to that. But again, I best stay away from commenting on religious paths of which I know little.

There are some religious paths that encourage people to become supra-human, but this is not the path of Chan. Chan encourages people to discover to the fullest extent possible what it means to be human. The process of cutting off desire is also the process of understanding the nature of desire—which is a fundamental aspect of being human. Desire is what enabled the human race to evolve in the first place. We don’t become less human, or “beyond” human from the process of not acting upon desires, we become more aware of what it is to BE human.

NDM: When you said earlier “I find this a bit confusing. Chan's foundation is with the Noble Eightfold Path”

The Buddha in the Pali suttas spoke about “right concentration" meaning jhana. He didn’t teach Shikantaza, “Big mind”, give people koans, or hit people over the head with sticks. He never said to become a Bodhisattva either and to reincarnate over and over again and try to save the world first, and according to the scripture he definitely didn’t teach Tantra. This was what I was getting at. Has Zen deviated from the Noble Eight Fold Path due to Chinese, Japanese, Korean, American, Tibetan, Taoist and Shinto, and shamanic influences and lost its way?

Chaun Zhi: I see what you're getting at. I think there are several reasons for this happening. When I was starting out with Zen all that was available was the Japanese style. Still, that's mostly what's around in the West. It was introduced long before Chinese Chan, which is still not very accessible to westerners because of cultural/ethnic barriers. Of all the various Japanese Zen groups I visited when I was young, not one talked about the Four Noble Truths. There was no discussion of behavior, ethics, morality, etc. They were all the same with their instruction to beginners: sit and count the breath. That was pretty much it. The rest was zendo etiquette: how to walk, how to sit, chant, how to eat and so on. When questions arose of a philosophical or ethical/moral nature, they were brushed off with quick one-liners, like "just sit". Or "Your mind moves. Still it!" Without the context of an ethical framework, such as is provided by the Eightfold Path, people on Zen's path can easily go off track. When one meditates a lot, inhibitions, which are manifestations of ego, start evaporating. And if the person is not grounded in an ethical code, that lack of inhibition can lead to all sorts of problems, especially with sexual relationships.

But I’m not sure we can say Chan has lost its way. It’s people who lose their way. The principles of Buddhism are simple and clear, but following them is hard and it has to be done in small steps from wherever we are, otherwise we get ourselves into trouble, or we get others into trouble. Buddhism, through its many forms and customs, offers inspiration for us in myriad forms, from archetypal images of buddhas and celestial saviors, to aromatic incense, beautiful chants, illuminating sutras and shastras, poetry, bells and drums…

As I mentioned earlier, Zen/Chan is something one grows into. When we jump into the middle before we're ready, it's dangerous. So perhaps you are right ... the roots, the foundations of Zen, are becoming lost to some degree. But a lot has to do with who is presenting Zen, and their degree of spiritual experience and understanding.

NDM: I find the comparison interesting. Similar but also different in other ways. Chan seems to be closer to Advaita Vedanta than Theravada Buddhism in certain aspects.

Chaun Zhi: I agree. The link you provided considers variations between some religious attributes of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Again, I don’t think that comparing differences between religions is very productive, at least from the spiritual point of view. Religions are colored by a myriad of social and cultural pigments, and while the same name is used from region to region, country to country, they can present very differently. Looking at commonalities gives a greater insight into the essence of what all religions are about. A good read on this topic comes from Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion.