It is fortunate that many people who gain some acquaintance with Buddhism decide to engage in its practice. Yearning for enlightenment, they set about establishing a practice, and this normally leads them to read as much as possible about the topic, and, very often, to chose a teacher. Many find it hard to establish a fruitful practice on their own, relying only on reading and on trial and error. The study and interpretation of the Sutras, and continual practice, requires considerable effort and takes many people years to bear fruit. The resulting wisdom is solid and deep but most people brought up in a culture like our own that values short-term results are not inclined to dedicate years or decades to a practice whose outcome is uncertain. And this is a common incentive for practitioners to look for a teacher: they believe that under proper guidance their path to enlightenment will be shortened. Of these practitioners, a great many consider that the chosen teacher must be "enlightened" - however their own "unenlightened" judgment defines the term. In their judgment, only "those that have been there" are truly qualified to lead the way, yet, epistemologically, they have no way of knowing where "there" is yet.
Chan, being a purely mystical branch of Buddhism, does not have a definition of what is appropriate and inappropriate regarding practicing individually or in a group (even the concept of a "sangha" is understood to apply to the community of Buddhists at large rather than to a particular type of organization); nor does it have anything to say about receiving instruction from a particular "type" of teacher. Aside from the considerations presented in Stuart Lachs' writings, we will take a look at the logic, merits and demerits of each approach, looking at a few commonly asked questions: is it better to practice in a group or alone? Is it better to have a teacher or not? Is it better that the teacher be enlightened or not?
These topics are interconnected, so we'll begin by discussing the perceived need for practicing with a group: is it needed? Yes and no, some people may benefit more from group practice than others. Group practice can be many things: it can be just a loosely structured sitting group for socializing and discussions or, at the other end of the spectrum, a formal, very structured group that meets in a temple and adheres to a strict set of the Vinaya rules. A group may be beneficial when it allows students to identify and avoid difficulties in their practice since the simple act of sharing may speed one's understanding of the Dharma, but group practice is impossible for a great many practitioners because of the structure of their lives, or a lack of groups in their area. Much like in Asia, some students benefit from monastic practice, some from a lay life and others from asceticism. Chan does not have a requirement regarding the correct setting for practice. Even Hui Neng made it clear in the Platform Sutra that a lay practitioner is just as likely to realize his true nature as the most dedicated monk. What is most important is that one practice constantly and correctly, not whether practice is performed in a group or alone. The paradox in Chan is that even in a group we are alone, while, at the same time, the whole concept of aloneness dissolves when we discover our intrinsically empty nature: "group" or "individual" are constructs of the mind and not a fundamental aspect of Reality.
But let us now look at the other perceived needs: that one must choose a teacher and that a teacher must be enlightened if anyone is to make progress. Is this true? The answer is two-fold: a teacher can be useful just as practicing in a group can be useful to some: yet some people may benefit from the guidance while others will not need it at all. The second part of the answer relates to whether the teacher needs to be enlightened, and the answer is that it really does not matter as long as the teacher adheres to high moral and ethical standards and follows the eightfold path and the precepts. Unlike other traditions that place great importance on teachers, Chan focuses much more intensely on individual, constant practice. Only we, ourselves, can attain the realization of our own True Nature, no teacher can do it for us. The time and effort it takes to attain enlightenment depends on our effort and desire for it. A teacher cannot make the effort for us and he cannot engineer each student's karma so that everyone attains enlightenment before the week is out. A teacher is no more than a menu: we still have to eat the food to know what it tastes like: the teacher can lead us to it, may teach us one of many ways to eat it... but we still have to eat it... and the food can be eaten in ways that the teacher does not teach. Perhaps an enlightened teacher can describe what the food tastes like - to him - but that is still nothing more than a description. Rather than wasting time with descriptions, students of Chan are always directed to "taste the food" for themselves.
Whether in regard to teachers (enlightened or otherwise) or group practice, a student of Chan has to bear in mind some simple Buddhist principles:
- It is a hindrance to think that something or someone other than ourselves can save us or can attain enlightenment for us
- Chan is wisdom and meditation, as Hui Neng and Xu Yun often told their disciples: wisdom and meditation are the same, it is not that wisdom is meditation or that meditation is wisdom, or that one leads to the other: they are the same. Wisdom and meditation constitute our practice and we cannot obtain them without personal effort. They are not bestowed on us: we attain them through constant daily practice.
- Dual thinking is a hindrance, and preferring an enlightened over a non-enlightened teacher is a fallacy of duality, since both have the same nature. Rather, we should seek teachers who adheres to highest moral and ethical standards, and who are committed to the Dharma. Moreover, how can an unenlightened student tell an enlightened teacher from one that is not enlightened? Only an enlightened mind can clearly see another enlightened mind, and to an enlightened mind, all minds are already enlightened! (Of course, the quintessential aspect of Zen is that we come to realize this for ourselves.)
- Enlightenment is not a badge or prize that is won for passing an exam or for practicing for a given amount of time or in a prescribed way. It cannot be passed on, bestowed, given, apportioned or transferred; it is not a condition that can be passed by osmosis or contagion. Striving for enlightenment by simply following the guidance of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths (and Eightfold Path) is the surest way not to attain it, and an enlightened person familiar with the Buddhist historical backdrop will be the first to point that out to you. Striving for enlightenment as if it were something to attain, or something to acquire from someone else, creates an insurmountable and impenetrable obstacle on the spiritual path.
All in all, what is important is that we constantly practice developing awareness, that we meditate and study our lives; that we keep our minds open to everything that comes our way and treat each of our experiences as learning and practice opportunities. Our true nature is always there for us to realize, but only we, by ourselves, can realize it.