The Subtle Discrimination between the Practices of Sunyata in Hinayana,
Mahayana and Vajrayana
Yogi C. M. Chen
This essay is divided into two parts. The first part is a general discussion.
The second part gives particulars. The purpose is to give a concept of
the Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana (Mahamudra, Great Perfection and Chan)
practice of Sunyata, throughout the whole system of Buddhism. Thus, the
reader may see the essence of each, and chart his own course, while avoiding
the two extremes of self-pride and self-abasement.
I. General Discourse
There are two great paths in the whole system of Buddhism; one is the
Path of Liberation, the other is the Path of Love. The Path of Liberation
emphasizes the philosophy of Right Views. The Path of Love lays stress
on deep breathing. Our present subject is all five kinds of practice of
Sunyata belonging to the Path of Liberation, and their philosophical views.
A. The Hinayana practice of Sunyata is based on the philosophical view
of Non-Egoism of Personality. Here, it is necessary to recognize that there
is no self nature in any personality, either man or Buddha. This practice
leads to the four realizations of the Arhat, but gives only a one-sided
view of Nirvana.
B. The Mahayana practice of Sunyata is based on the view of Non-Born in
the Middle Way school. It is necessary to recognize that all Dharmas, whether
persons or things, have no self nature. Here, one must use all eight meditations
and contemplations which are: non-born, non-destruction, non-ceasing, non-permanence,
non-coming, non-going, non-similarity, and non-difference. The Four Noble
Truths and Twelve Causations are not taken as Final Truth as in Hinayana,
nor is the doctrine of the Idealist School accepted as final truth. Meditate
with determination on tile Non-Born philosophy of every Dharma both within
consciousness and in the material world. The truth of Non-Born should penetrate
not only the good but also the evil. The Hinayanists flee from evil through
their Vinaya, but the Mahayanists penetrate it through Sunyata.
C. The Vajrayana practice of Mahamudra is based on the Right View of Spontaneous
Wisdom. This is sometimes called the Dharmakaya view. Here, one must be
able to recognize that every Dharma is the same as the Enlightened Entity
of Spontaneous Wisdom; then, hold it, learn to keep it and confirm it and
finally learn how to use it. At last, it becomes intrinsic and natural.
No method should be used to transform it, nor should one desire to get
anything else. There is no need for any kind of exoteric contemplation
as in the Mahayana teachings.
D. The Vajrayana method called the "Great Perfection" is based on the
Right View of Natural Purity. This is also called the Right View of Great
Perfection. Here, every Dharma is naturally pure. There is no such defilement
in discernment as belief in birth, death, Samsara or Nirvana. There is
no bondage, hence no liberation, no practice and no realization. It is
by itself, appears by itself, performs by itself, and is itself the result.
What Dharma appears, whatever happens, there is the Great Perfection within
E. In Vajrayana Chan there is no Right View to keep. The supernatural
power of the Chan is within the Truth. There is no instruction, no teachings,
no words or speech and no meditation. Communication between students and
teacher is intuitively made by the Chan realization. Here there can be
no hesitation, nor admission of comprehension.
We have dealt with the five fundamental philosophical views. Now, we will
cover their practical applications.
1. Hinayana Non-Egoism of Personality lays most stress on analysis.
Practitioners attempt to find the self in organs and every part of the
body and mind, until the full recognition that there is no self at all.
2. Mahayana practices Sunyata with the Six Paramitas which require a
long time to attain. The Mahayana yogi desires to save all sentient beings
but suffers defilement from the surrounding pollution in the process.
It is said that when you meet a single sinful person and drink with him
from the same river, you too will be polluted. This creates great obstacles.
But the Bodhisattvas of the Mahayana school take no account of this for
they are willing to sacrifice themselves and thus they spend many lives
helping all sentient beings and thereby postponing their own attainment.
Some of the Mahabodhisattvas such as Avalokitesvara and Manjusri attained
Full Enlightenment but for the sake of all sentient beings they have
returned to the position of Bodhisattva. It is said that Manjusri is
the Guru of seven Buddhas. Despite this, he continues to retain his position
of Bodhisattva. To overcome these obstacles, it is written in the Bodhisattvas
Vinaya that every Bodhisattva must meditate in the Sunyata at least three
times a day. That is why the path of Mahayana must last through three
3. To practice Mahamudra one should have the traditional Guru and Initiation
from which one obtains the practical starting point of the Enlightened
Entity. Then one is able to progress through four sequences or graduations
of practice. There are four yogas in Mahamudra, viz: (1) One-pointed
yoga (2) Give-up-play-words yoga (3) One-taste yoga (4) Non-practice
yoga. It is said that through Mahamudra, one may attain Buddhahood within
4. The Great Perfection does not set up four yogic sequences. It is
more immediate than Mahamudra. It lays stress on the Right View of Natural
Purity and thus one attains Buddhahood at every moment. However, it is
difficult to distinguish whether ones Right View of Natural Purity is
accurate or not.
5. Chan dispenses with even the view of Natural Purity. Here, one does
not even use the word Buddhahood. It is said a Chanist is walking in
the air as a bird; no trace remains in the air.
The second part of this essay is composed of five divisions, progressing
from the lower to the higher stages, thus making the necessary discriminations
Before going into the discriminations, some discussions of two important
principles are necessary. We must know how to use both exoteric and esoteric
approaches, and recognize the similarities between Dharma teachings as
well as knowing each as a whole. This is the principle of harmonization.
For example, each of the five Dharmas mentioned in their Doctrines take
Sunyata as a main condition. Hinayana practices Sunyata as does Mahayana
and Vajrayana. The quality of Sunyata is the same in all three yanas. That
is why Tsong-Kha-pa has said that the difference between Hinayana and Mahayana
is in the merit and not in the Sunyata. However, he knew only how to recognize
the homogeneity, but not the discriminations. I have given eight sufficient
reasons in the argument against Tsong-kha-pas theory which emphasizes that
the difference between Mahayana and Hinayana lies only in merit but not
in wisdom as he viewed the Sunyata as similar in both. This was written
about in my Chinese essay entitled "A Criticism on Tsong-kha-pas Great
Workan Essay on the Stages of the Bodhi Path." I hope one day it may be
translated into Tibetan and into English for readers of those languages.
To be able to make these discriminations, it is first necessary to: (1)
Study them wisely, (2) Inquire into them searchingly, (3) Reflect upon
them carefully. Only then can we (4) Discriminate accurately. This will
enable us to know both the differences between Dharma teachings, as well
as the essence of each. Finally, when one has grasped these essential points,
it becomes possible to (5) Practice them diligently. This is the Principle
of Discrimination. By learning the subtle discriminations, we then know
what stage we should work on, and thus resolve our self-deceit, self-pride
1. Discrimination between the practice of Sunyata in Esoteric
and Exoteric Schools
The practice of Sunyata in the exoteric schools is according to a general
procedure which goes from Vinaya to Dhyana to Prajna, i.e. Commandment,
Meditation, and Wisdom. It is practiced according to the Eight Negatives
and Four Phrases of the Mahaparamita Sutra. This may take a long time and
requires much effort.
In the second esoteric schools, Sunyata is practiced after initiation
using many techniques and methods in the Position of Consequence. That
is why it is called the Consequence Doctrine. It is obtained from an accomplished
Guru who is in the Position of Consequence and can bestow blessings. Through
the initiation, the Guru gives a short and immediate experience of Sunyata
which constitutes realization of the Consequence Position. This is a very
quick method. It enables the disciple to see the Enlightened Entity intuitively.
From this point he starts to practice the Mahamudra. Hence, such a Sunyata
practice is not only theory, but realization. It may be compared to a rocket.
In the exoteric schools, attempt is made to unite the philosophic practice
of Sunyata with the six active paramitas. Thus philosophy and conduct are
united. This is very difficult to do and often requires many attempts.
The Bodhisattva spends many kalpas trying to save others before he himself
is released. He can not forget his main purpose.
In the esoteric schools, Sunyata is practiced using many kinds of yantras,
mantras, visualizations and other methods based upon the experience of
the Buddhas who themselves were in the Consequence Position. These are
not imparted in the exoteric schools, which lack these Tantric teachings.
In this way, the spiritual food and merits are gathered many times faster
and easier via these Tantras. The essentials of the exoteric schools constitute
the foundation of the esoteric teachings. These are practiced by the Tantrist
before he practiced the Tantra. There are people who practice exoteric
teachings but not Tantra. However, there is no one who practices Tantra
without first practicing the exoteric.
2. Discrimination between the Practice of Sunyata in Hinayana and
A. Hinayana practice of Sunyata lays stress on step by step analysis
of the personality, while the Mahayana lays most stress on the here
and now without analysis. In the former practice, things are broken
down to atomic levels. The atom is assumed to be incapable of further
division. This is taken as "Haveness" and the present seems to be there, but past and future
are void. But in Mahayana practice, every Dharma of here and now is completely
empty, and past, present, and future time periods are not attainable. They
practice Sunyata without analysis. That is why they say that every Dharma
is intrinsically void, every Dharma only a false name, and every Dharma
is itself the Truth. Hinayana practice uses the example of the "broken
bottle." When the analysis reaches the end, the mind which holds this "bottle" form
also becomes Sunyata. Mahayana practice sees the bottle as Sunyata
B. The student of Hinayana practices the Four Noble Truths with the
desire to use the Sunyata idea to escape the pain of haveness. Or,
he may practice the Twelve Causations with the aim of achieving cessation
of suffering by the reverse order of the Twelve Causations. Again,
this is an attempt to use the Sunyata to stop pain. This practice is
negative. Parables such as those of "the cow," "babies," and "fire" are
used with the idea of escape from suffering. For example, there is
the parable of the man who makes the mistake of thinking an officials
cow is his own. He takes it with him, but upon discovering his error
he frees the cow and flees his home in fear of punishment by the official.
The meaning of the parable is that every Dharma is originally Sunyata
but when we take the Sunyata to be self (ego), we have to fear being
seized by others. This results when one practices Sunyata with the
Four Noble Truths out of desire to free oneself from suffering. The
highest level achieved in Hinayana is only the four realizations of
The Mahayana practice of Sunyata lays stress on the same entity of Sunyata,
for all sentient beings. The Mahayanist practices it with Non-Egoism and
altruism, from which develops the Great Compassion of the Same Entity and
the Great Compassion of the Non-Condition. Hence, he practices the six
paramitas and unites with the Sunyata of Three Wheels. In this way, the
ego is eventually virtually eliminated. In these ways Mahayana lays stress
on positive values.
C. The follower of Hinayana practices Sunyata in accordance with the doctrine
of Causation of Karma, thus laying most stress on Vinaya. In Mahayana practice,
the Sunyata is practiced in accordance with the Causation of Tathagata.
In this Causation, there are Ten Wonderful Gates of the Conditional Virtues
(Hwa Yen School) from which is practiced the Bodhi and thus much spiritual
food of merit and wisdom is collected. In such a fashion, one may reach
the Mahayana Nirvana, not just the four stages of Arhatship. Actually,
the Sunyata Condition and the Sunyata Nature are just like two sides of
a piece of paper. No one practices Sunyata Nature only and not Sunyata
Condition, or vice versa. However, it is possible to practice Sunyata Nature
with many different methods, just as it is possible to practice Sunyata
Condition with many other methods.
3. The Discrimination between the Practice of Sunyata by the Great
Middle Path and the Way of Mahamudra:
The name "the Great Middle Path" was written in a Tibetan book called The
Mahamudra of the Dro Pa School. My guru said the "Great Middle Path
is the seed, Mahamudra is the way or path and Great Perfection is the
result or consequence." We use the adjective "great" to modify the Middle
Path, because the paramita yana, belonging to exoteric doctrine, is called
the Middle Way. But when we are discussing esoteric doctrines, the word "great" is
used. The discrimination between the two doctrines will be discussed
in the following eight paragraphs:
A. In the Paramita Yana, one practices Sunyata with the eight negations,
four phrases, eighteen kinds of Sunyata, eight parables, and certain other
methods. Sunyata is investigated by using rational reason, utilizing all
phenomena. The Mahamudra is based upon this exoteric doctrine, but on this
foundation it adds certain other methods; in particular, the initiations
through which one receives blessings and eventually the insight of the
Enlightened Entity. Only at this point does one actually start to practice
B. The practice of Sunyata in the Paramita Yana must be combined
with the other five paramitas. In this way, the student develops
the Bodhicitta and the resolve to lead all sentient beings to Buddhahood
before himself. The student of Vajrayana Mahamudra must stress complete
renunciation. Through continuous meditation in his hermitage, he
develops resolve to shorten the time of attainment and ultimately
to save all sentient beings in this lifetime. To this end, he must
now give up such practices as divination, magic, healing and all
other Karmas which can give only temporary help to sentient beings.
That was why in the Mahamudra doctrine it is written that "to practice
Mahamudra, he must keep the nine cessations of body, speech and mind."
C. The Paramita Yana moves in a gradual sequence from vinaya to
dhyana to prajna. During the practice of dhyana, one first practices
samatha, then samapatti, and finally the two together. Vajrayana
Mahamudra practice starts at the time one gets the insight of the
Enlightened Entity. At this time, samatha and samapatti become intrinsically
unified. Samatha is the
"entity" and samapatti is itself the "enlightened." Thus, there is no duality
within the Enlightened Entity. When one has achieved this unity of samatha and
samapatti it becomes possible to practice the first yoga, called "One-Pointed
Yoga" In the book Mahamudra of Dro Pa School One-Pointed Yoga
is considered to be just samatha. The next yoga, called "Give-up-the-Play-Word Yoga" is taken
to be samapatti. In my humble opinion, this is a great mistake in the actual
meaning of "one-pointed." While abiding constantly on the Enlightened Entity
of Mahamudra, there is no samatha of subjectivity, no insight of objectivity,
and the Enlightened Entity appears by itself, abides by itself, and continues
by itself. This is the practice of Sunyata in the Consequence Position. What "Give-up-the-Play-Word
Yoga" means is to give up volition in meditation on the Enlightened
Entity. This does not mean giving up the sensations or thoughts of
ordinary mental states, as the Great Middle Path suggests. The reader
is advised to refer to my Chinese book entitled The Subtle Discrimination of the Essential Mahamudra Teachings.
D. The practice of Sunyata of the Great Middle Path progresses in
a straight line, step by step through samatha and samapatti, until
the two become unified. This progression is arithmetic in quality.
From the starting point of Mahamudra practice with the Enlightened
Entity, to its full realization, the quality of progress is no longer
in a straight line, but progresses sphere by sphere. At the starting
point of the Enlightened Entity, each yoga is a sphere, perfectly
round consisting of the Sunyata and Dharmakaya though yet imperfect.
After each yoga is practiced and realized, the wisdom of enlightenment
becomes crystalized and becomes the concrete embodiment of Dharmakaya.
The term "enlightened" in the term of "Enlightened Entity"
is the gnostic light of the Sunyata Condition which is the Rupakaya, while
"entity" is the Dharmakaya. The practice of Sunyata of the Great
Middle Path gives only a partial realization of this. That is why
the Bodhisattva of the first stage does not know the Sunyata of the
second. He partially cuts off some sorrows and achieves some partial
realization of Dharmakaya. Hence, the Way of the Causal Doctrine
can not compare with the doctrine of the Vajrayana Mahamudra. We
can take the example of travelling by train or airplane as an analogy.
In a train we may get out and explore the details of the stations
if we wish, but we have a view limited to the immediate vicinity
of the tracks. In an airplane we have a birds eye view of both sky
and earth at every moment. The latter is the Tantric method of practicing
Sunyata, that is, the Mahamudra.
E. The Tantric doctrine of Mahamudra uses some metaphors and parables
which are the same as those usually used in the exoteric schools.
For instance, the Mahamudra Yoga of One-Taste uses the parables of "water and waves,"
"water and ice" and "sleep and dreams." These are also mentioned
in the Prajna Paramita Sutra. While the subject of the parables is
the same in both, their objects are used quite differently. The books Mahamudra of Dro Pa School and
the book called Rest from Maya Method written by the Nyingmapa sage named
Undefiled Light, did not point out the difference between the two objects of
the parable. Hence, it has been criticized by the Gelugpa as the same exoteric
doctrine. In my book Subtle Discriminations of the Teachings of Mahamudra I
have explained the difference in the two senses very clearly. The
main difference is that the object practiced in the Great Middle
Path is only philosophic and theoretical, while the object of the
parable as practiced in the Mahamudra is the Enlightened Entity.
This is the "water" or "sleep" of the parables, while
its Wonderful Function is the "wave," "dream" or "ice." This appears
in the Yoga of One-Taste. These, I must add, are practical realizations
and not just theory.
F. The term "Non-Practice Yoga" in Mahamudra means there is no defilement
in the practice of the Enlightened Entity and its conditional function.
But, the same term in the doctrine of the Great Middle Path means
that there is no defilement in the philosophy of Sunyata since they
never have the Enlightened Entity for a starting point of practice.
There is a position of non-knowledge in which the exoteric cuts off
sorrow and achieves the Buddha. This realization is approaching Buddhahood.
It is very difficult to attain. In the Mahamudra one has the advantage
of the initiations and blessings of a guru who is himself in the
position of Dharmakaya. Thus the approach to the Non-practice Position
is comparatively easy and quick. While the theory of non-practice
seems the same in Mahamudra and the Great Middle Path, its quality
is very different in the two.
G. The practitioner of the Great Middle Path purposely aids others and
thus prolongs the time taken to realize Sunyata. He desires that all beings
achieve Budahood before he does. The student of Vajrayana, on the contrary,
forbids himself these practices and adds some methods, such as the fourth
Mahamudra initiation, to shorten his path, as I have already explained.
H. Although the Causation of Tathagata or Bhutatathata in the Great
Middle Path is superior to the Causation of Alaya in the Idealism
school (which lays much stress on mentality), the latter never takes
account of this. Philosophically, the Theory of Tathagata is not
limited by mentality. In their doctrine "mind" is always used, but actually it does not mean consciousness,
which is separate from materiality. Actually, the Causation of Tathagata
includes every Dharma and every phenomena of mentality and materiality,
all of which are included in the Tathagatagarbha. It does not separate
matter from mind. I always say that "among the three realms there are only
conditions, and every condition is Sunyata" instead of the Idealist saying
that "the three realms are only Mind and all Dharmas are consciousness." Actually
the Mahamudra is practiced only after the second and third initiation.
During the practice of these initiations one is practicing deep breathing.
Here mind actually meets the five elements.
4. Discrimination between the Practice of Sunyata and Mahamudra
and Great Perfection
Both Mahamudra and the Great Perfection are esoteric. The latter belongs
to the Nyingmapa School. Some of these doctrines come from the "Hidden
Treasure of Dharma" hidden by Padmasambhava, which the Gelugpa rejects
for the reason that they were not imparted from India. Mahamudra is accepted
by every Tibetan school, although the Gelugpa considers it very esoteric,
and therefore do not readily talk about it. In my humble opinion, the Hidden
Treasure of Dharma is not completely reliable. Some of the doctrines are
not authentic. But, we can investigate them with reason and philosophy.
What is really the Gem of Dharma is without a doubt excellent. Unfortunately,
the Gelugpa rejects all types of hidden Treasure. This shows a kind of
ignorance of the tradition, and a lack of "Dharma eye" with which these
discriminations must be made. For example, they refuse to accept the Book
of the Dead. This goes against philosophy, logic and reason. The Buddha
must have had compassion for those in the Bardos. Are the teachings of
no help to those in the Bardo states? Is the practice of reading from the
book and visualizing the five Buddhas of no value even if the book was
not written by Padmasambhava himself? While it is not the purpose of this
essay to discuss at length the value of the Treasury of Dharma, since the
Great Perfection belongs to the Nyingmapa Hidden Treasures, I must speak
about it a little.
The Gelugpa holds to the imparted tradition from India. But, were all
these Dharmas imparted orally, from mouth to ear. If we dig up the source
of the Tantra, then we find that the lower three yogas were discovered
by Nagarjuna in the Iron Pagoda in Southern India. Is this not the real
tradition? It has never been rejected by the Gelugpa, yet it was a hidden
treasure. Of the other Tantras of the Anuttara Yoga, some are said to have
descended from Heaven and some were given to the Guru by the wisdom Yidam.
Thus, not all were imparted personally by Gautama Buddha. That is why it
is said that the Tantra is always imparted by the Sambhogakayas. This is
admitted even by the exoteric schools; the reader can have no doubt about
this, thus strengthening his faith.
A. Mahamudra establishes four yogas and practices them one by one, whereas
the Great Perfection does not establish these yogas. The former method
is gradual, while the latter is rapid. The Right View of the Mahamudra
is called the Dharmakaya View, while the Great Perfection is called the
Natural Purity View. The former requires practice to gain realization,
while the latter does not. Because there is no bondage in the Cause position,
there is no need of liberation in the Consequence position. In terms
of time, the present is taken as Sunyata without hesitation or waiting.
In terms of space, whatever is before one, is taken without choice or
selection. Where there is the Right View of Natural Purity there is Right
Practice, Right Conduct and Right Result without gradation or sequence.
The practitioner must just keep the Right View of Natural Purity without
a moments cessation. That is why the great guru Gampopa said, "You think I practice, but what
is it that I practice? If you say I do not practice, then why am I not
disturbed?" We should not deceive ourselves, only the great sages can
In the works of the great Nyingmapa sage named Undefiled Light there
are many mistakes that make the Mahamudra so much like the Great Perfection.
I have written an essay entitled "Padmasambhavas Secret Teaching on the
Great Perfection" which someday may be translated by some one, and may
be used for reference on this subject.
B. Through the aid of the third initiation, one attains the Rainbow
Body in the practice of Mahamudra, while in the Great Perfection, one
may do without Dakinis. Here another method called Torga is used, through
which the body is transformed into the Rainbow Body. The former practice
is both dangerous and difficult since real Dakinis are hard to meet.
It is also very dangerous to lose the White Bodhi and very difficult
to dissolve it into Wisdom light, in the maya body of Buddhahood or Heruka.
In the Great Perfection, there is nothing quite so difficult or dangerous.
In the first state of practice, advantage is taken of external light
such as the sun and moon. By and by, the light is induced within the
maya body. This is easily done in the Great Perfection. Practice is carried
out in a totally dark building. Even if the yogi does not succeed in
this, he avoids the traps of lust and suffering which sometimes catch
those who have received the third initiation. There is a special doctrine
in the Nyandhi Yoga called
"The Highest Method for Getting Enlightenment in One Week" which explains
this. I have given a commentary on this in my Chinese book published
in Hong Kong.
C. The concept of Causation in the Mahamudra is different from that in
the Great Perfection. The practitioner of Mahamudra has already passed
through the second and third initiations in which Tumo and deep breathing
are practiced, and has sublimated the gross breathing into non-dualism
of mind and energy. On this basis he established the gnostic Sambhogakaya
or Dharmakaya. Now the student should practice the fourth initiation of
Mahamudra with this maya body and achieve the non-duality of enlightenment.
In the Great Perfection the concept of causation is also related to the
five energies of breathing, the five of wisdom, five lights and five Vajrayana
chains (Torga) which form the foundation of non-duality of mind and energy.
In the Great Perfection these elements and five wisdoms are intrinsically
harmonized. Thus, the student does not practice them separately. He knows
that mind and energy are naturally pure and perfect. Therefore it is not
necessary to practice first with the mind, and then with deep breathing
and finally with the non-duality of the two, since there is no duality
between mind and energy in the View of Natural Purity. In the Five Lights
of Torga, one experiences the harmonization of the five energies and five
wisdoms. Here there is no analysis, for there is no need to analyze whether
the light belongs to this wisdom or this energy.
D. Che Cho means View of Natural Purity. It is the foundation of the Great
Perfection. It views everything as the five elements, five energies, five
wisdoms and five lights, which are two Parts of the Great Perfection. All
are intrinsically pure and holy. With this view one is able to practice
the Torga through which ones body may be transformed into the Rainbow Body.
5. Discrimination between the Practice of Sunyata in the Great
Perfection and Chan:
Before proceeding with a more detailed discussion of this topic, a short
introduction to Chan is necessary. Two things must be mentioned:
i) In China the Tantra and the Chan have been considered as two separate
schools. But in accordance with my emphasis on all systems of Buddhism
being one whole, the Chan actually should be considered as belonging to
the highest stage of the Great Perfection in the Vajrayana, which is Tantra.
There are three reasons why they should not be divided:
a) My root guru, the great Lola Rimpoche, who was highly skilled in
the practice of Great Perfection and the first guru to impart it in China,
made contact with many Chinese scholars and practitioners of Chan. As
a result he called it the "Great Tantra" which is the highest stage of
the Great Perfections. This will be discussed in more detail later on.
Historically, Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa school is said to
have criticized the Chinese Chan monk who came to Tibet and induced Tibetan
Tantric monks to become his disciples. Tsongkhapa was born in Chin Hai
Province which is close to Tibet and on the periphery of China. In this
province, Tibetan but not Han customs are followed. He himself never
entered Han and hence never learned about Chan. I have given some criticism
of his book, The Great
Path of Tantra, on this point in Chinese. It has been published in
b) What we have called the Tantra may have secrecy in its content. But
the Chan has not only this secrecy, but secrecy of function in Truth. This
kind of function of Truth has many wonderful methods which are without
logic or reason, but give the student instant comprehension of the Truth.
This will be discussed later on. For this reason Chan is not exoteric as
the Chinese scholars classified it.
c) The first patriarch of the Chinese Chan school was Bodhidharma who
had been a famous Tantric guru in Tibet. In China he was known as a patriarch
of Chan alone but in Tibet he imparted the Great Perfection whose foundation
was completely the same as that of the Chinese Chan school. So, without
question, Chan belongs to the Tantra.
ii) The second part of my introduction to Chan concerns its classifications.
The Venerable teacher Tai Hsu classified Chan schools in terms of their
purport and dynasty as follows:
a) Tathagata Chan which tries to teach how to recognize the mind
b) Patriarchal Chan which points out the mind intuitively without one word
of doctrines and goes beyond the Buddhas.
c) Chan of the Five Sects which goes beyond Chan of the Patriarchs.
d) Chan in the Sung, Yuan, Ming and Ching dynasties.
"Dhyana Buddhism in Chinese History and Teachings" written by Doctor Chu
Shang Kung used these four classifications, but in my humble opinion I
cannot agree with them. The first three categories are based on the standard
of quality, whereas the fourth uses that of dynasties. One should not use
two standards to classify one thing. In accordance with the prophecies
of the ancient Gurus of Chan, I made the following four categories:
a) Tathagata Chan of Dharmic teachings.
b) Patriarchal Chan pointing out the Essence.
c) Offspring Chan using, opportunity and function to impart the Truth.
d) The Oral Chan spoken by sand-like Buddhists.
The terms "offspring" and "sand-like" were both predicted in the prophecies
of Chan history. The Chinese scholars mistakenly thought the Sand-like
Chan would be known by everyone. Actually, it is said that the common Oral
Chan is not Chan at all, just as sand is not gold. It was a term of ridicule
rather than praise.
Using the above system of classification, the comparative study of Chan
and the Great Perfection should take account of the following: First, we
should know that Chan is the highest stage of the Great Perfection, and
therefore is part of the Tantra. This contrasts with the view of the Chinese
scholars who treat the Tantra as a doctrine of outsiders and considered
Chan as an exoteric doctrine. The second point is that the Chan which can
be compared to the Great Perfection is the third type, which I have called
Offspring Chan. This is not so for the other three types of Chan. Patriarch
Chan can only be compared to the Mahamudra, and Tathagata Chan only with
the Great Middle Path. The ordinary Oral Chan is not Chan at all and not
worth a straw. Thus, I will use the Offspring Chan in the following comparisons.
A. Great Perfection employs three kinds of imparting methods in initiations.
The first is called Denoting Initiation, the second is Oral Initiation
and the third is Mind Initiation. In the first one, a crystal or round
mirror is usually used as a symbol of the initiation. In all three there
are formal rituals which are traditional. In Chan there are no such rituals,
rather, the Great Opportunity and the Great Function of the Truth are used.
The Chan guru must impart it in his own realization and the disciple must
also accept it in this newly appeared realization, intuitively. No established
rituals or objects are used as symbols or denotation. Thus the guru is
only able to impart it if he himself has realized it; and the disciple
cannot accept it if he does not suddenly make his own realization appear.
In the Great Perfection on the other hand the guru may not have had the
realization himself. But if he has received and studied the tradition,
he may give the initiations using the prescribed rituals.
B. In the history of the accomplished gurus of the Great Perfection, there
are very few who could use the Great Opportunity and Function with the
Truth. One such was Tilopa who gave Naropa instant comprehension of the
Truth when he struck his penis with a rock. When Bewapa received his initiation
of Great Perfection, he began to dance in the Mandala and immediately attained
the sixth stage of Bodhisattva. Every Tibetan knows this story. However,
there are one hundred thousand more examples of this kind in the records
of the Chinese Chan. For example the Chan guru who lived in a birds nest
and was therefore called Birds Nest Guru, gave his disciple instant comprehension
when he blew on a feather. Was not the feather a small thing, and blowing
on it a small action? Yet, they performed such profound functions of the
Truth. Without the gurus great attainment and the great devotion of his
disciple, this result could not have been achieved. Many, many different
instances of this have been recorded. For example, drawing a bow, raising
a finger, beating or hitting the ground, killing a snake, a punch in the
armpit, raising a fist, breaking a pot, destroying a stove, upturning a
bed, blowing out a breath and knocking a bamboo, have all been used by
the great Chan gurus for imparting the truth. At times, crying, shouting
and the like have been used. Even seeing a reflection in the water, or
taking a cup of tea or a piece of cake have served the purpose. This all
seems very wonderful, but actually is very simple. It seems simple but
actually it is very wonderful. There is nothing in the history of Buddhism
in all of India, Tibet, China or Japan that can compare with it.
C. The Doctrine of the Great Perfection has been divided into two parts,
Che Cho and Torga, both of which have been used by many Nyingmapa Lamas.
Both are quite different from Chan where one is not allowed to practice
meditation before achieving some realization. There is a proverb which
goes, "Without passing the first crisis, one should not be a hermit; without
passing the second crisis, one should not abide on a mountain." That was
why the Chan monks usually wandered everywhere, searching for a guru through
whom they could get the realization of the truth. When the student comprehends
the truth, it is said that he has passed the first crisis. From this point
on he can practice the Chan which consists of just keeping the realization
constantly in mind. Many wonderful powers and forms of liberation have
been recorded in Tang Dynasty, through the practice of Chan. For example,
there was the sage Yin Fung who died standing upside down and the monk
Pu Wha who flew away with his body. Comparing the two schools just in terms
of the number of sages in each we see that the Chan had many, many more
followers who achieved higher attainments than the Great Perfection.
I will now give a brief but important summary of what I have said. The
discrimination between the exoteric and esoteric schools is a gross one,
and they are easily distinguished. The following essential distinctions
between Mahamudra, Great Perfection and Chan must be discerned. The practitioner
of Mahamudra must understand the fourth yoga called "Yoga of Non-Practice"
before he can begin to practice the Great Perfection and its view of Natural
Purity. The practitioner of Great Perfection must not only have the view
of Natural Purity, but actually some realization of Great Perfection, then
he can begin to practice Chan. The practitioner of Mahamudra must get the
insight of the Enlightened Entity before he can actually practice the Mahamudra.
Until he gets this insight, he is still at the stage of paramita meditation
even though he has received the impartation and initiation of Mahamudra.
The practitioner of Great Perfection must personally get the realization
of Che Cho, of Natural Purity. Even with initiation and impartation he
may only know the theory intellectually, and not have the realization.
Until he has this, he can not practice the Great Perfection.
The practitioner of Chan must have seen the Truth and must understand
the special impartation beyond doctrine. He must know the Preaching of
Dharmakaya without words. He must have personally seen the Natural Face.
Then and only then can he practice the Chan, which is to say, "box without
hands" and see that everything is in the Bodhi. All this must be known
intuitively and not just as "words from the mouth."
In conclusion, let me give some simple terms for distinguishing these
five kinds of Sunyata.
1-2. To practice Sunyata is the Course of the exoteric schools,
Hinayana and Mahayana.
3. To master the Sunyata is the Course of Mahamudra.
4. To naturalize Sunyata is the Course of Great Perfection.
5. To realize and function in Sunyata is the Course of Chan.
The student of Mahamudra masters the Sunyata because he has the Enlightened
Entity. This is somewhat quicker than in the exoteric schools, but more
gradual than in the Great Perfection since the student must go through
the four yogas, i.e. One-Pointed Yoga, Giving-Up-Play-Word Yoga, One-Taste
Yoga, and Non-Practice Yoga.
I wrote a poem symbolizing this: Needles head argues with its end
Passing thread is what they mind.
Head has hole, end must work on.
The point has much work to find.
Here, the head is the Great
Perfection which has its hole already made. The point of the needle must
work its way through the four yogas.
The Chan of Offspring is very difficult to understand, yet when once you
have discovered it, there is no practice so easy, so plain, and so intrinsic.
Among the five kinds of practice of Sunyata, it is the shortest and straightest
way, as is said, an attainment without walking.
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[Related works:Buddhist Meditation : Systematic and Practical 佛教禪定實修體系