Approaching Chan
Part 2: The Two Streams of Chan Contemplative Practices
by Venerable Guo-Xing

When Chan Buddhist practices were first transmitted to China, they were the same as those practised in India. Over time, however, the contemplative practices (禪觀) of Chan in China diverged into two distinct streams: the Tiantai school’s Śamatha-vipaśyanā, a combination of Hinayana and Mahayana practices from India, and the Chan school’s current methods of Huatou (話頭) and Silent Illumination (默照) contemplation, which are derived from Mahayana Chan in India.


Tiantai is an indigenous Chinese school of Buddhism that takes the Lotus Sutra as the basis for its core teachings, with a dual-pronged emphasis on doctrine and practice. The development of the Tiantai school originated with the concept of ”One Mind (Engages), Three Discernments (Meditations)” (一心三觀) proposed by the school’s First Patriarch, Master Huiwen (c. mid-6th century). The Second Patriarch, Master Huisi (515–77), further developed the “samadhi of half walking and half sitting” practice and the “samadhi of neither walking nor sitting” practice, as a way of applying the “One Mind, Three Discernments” in daily life. This represented a significant breakthrough in Chinese Chan thought and was the forerunner of the later Chan school, which emphasises that “the Way is in daily life.”

The Third Patriarch, Master Zhiyi (538–97), combined two contemplative practices from India and two from Master Huisi into four kinds of practice* in the treatise Mahā–śamatha-vipaśyanā (摩訶止觀). Master Zhiyi also inherited Master Huisi’s three types of Śamatha-vipaśyanā and made them a complete system of practice. The three types of Śamatha-vipaśyanā are:

1. Gradual Advancement Śamatha-vipaśyanā. While in his 30s, Master Zhiyi analyzed and compared in great detail all the gradual contemplation practices from India and wrote the well-known book, The Sequential Practices of Dhyāna Pāramitā (釋禪波羅蜜次第法門).

2. Indeterminate Śamatha-vipaśyanā. During middle age, Master Zhiyi wrote The Six Excellent Approaches for Practising Meditation (六妙門) and the Concise Śamatha-vipaśyanā (小止觀) to help practitioners of various levels of ability practice Śamatha-vipaśyanā. These include guidelines for settling the body and mind before practising the methods, methods for concentrating the mind, and how to practice in daily life while standing, sitting, working, or resting.

3. Perfect and Sudden Śamatha-vipaśyanā. When he reached old age, Master Zhiyi started to use the Śamatha-vipaśyanā system to summarise all the Buddhadharma. He completed a very detailed and systematic book titled Mahā-śamatha-vipaśyanā (摩訶止觀).

The late Chan Master Sheng Yen (1930–2009) was not a Tiantai expert, yet both his master’s and his doctoral theses focused on the Tiantai school. He frequently used Tiantai teachings to help newcomers begin with the gradual methods of contemplation to establish a foundation for practising the sudden methods. He would always remind practitioners that the purpose of practice is the practice itself and that the practice has two aspects: to clarify the concepts and to be actualised in daily life.

In short, after practitioners had built a practical foundation for meditating and focusing their minds, Master Sheng Yen would introduce direct contemplation and contemplation of the Middle Way (seeing emptiness), or the practice of the sudden methods, such as Huatou and Silent Illumination.


The Chan school emerged 100–200 years later than the Tiantai school. Since Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of the Chan school, came to China, the school has adapted to accommodate changing times and regional differences, and its style and content have gone through a number of major evolutions. According to the research of modern scholars, at least three major transformations have taken place.

The first period: from Bodhidharma’s arrival in China to the passing of the Sixth Patriarch Huineng (~190 years).

Bodhidharma introduced his treatise Two Entrances and Four Practices (二入四行) to China. “The Entrance of Principle” teaches the practitioner to meditate without having any thoughts in the mind. “The Entrance to Practice” introduces four methods to be practised in daily life — the Practice of Repaying Grievances, the Practice of Being in Accordance with Conditions, the Practice of Not Seeking, and the Practice of Abiding in the Dharma.

The Chan lineage was eventually transmitted to Master Huineng (638–713), whose teachings and practices are detailed in The Sixth Patriarch Platform Sutra. For example: “Do not think of good or evil. At this precise moment, where is your original face?” On another occasion, Master Huineng explained: “The Dharma method that I teach takes concentration and wisdom as its foundation. Yet everyone here should not be confused and think that samadhi (concentration) and wisdom are different . . . in actuality, when wisdom manifests, concentration is within wisdom; when concentration is attained, wisdom is within concentration.”

The essence of the Sixth Patriarch’s teachings, which is also the essence of the Sixth Patriarch Platform Sutra, are the concepts of “no thought,” “non-abiding,” and “no form.” These teachings are similar to the frequent instructions Master Sheng Yen would give when leading Chan practice to help practitioners to let go of attachment.

The second period: the 250 years after the Sixth Patriarch Huineng.

From the passing of Master Huineng to the end of the Five Dynasties (713–959), some 250 years, the Chan school produced many great masters. Over time, the many disciples in the Sixth Patriarch’s lineage developed five distinct schools of Chan, each with its own style and character: Weishan Lingyou and Yangshan Huiji founded the Weiyang School, Huangpo Xiyun and Linji Yixuan founded the Linji School, Yunmen Wenyan founded the Yunmen School, Dongshan Liangjie and Caoshan Benji founded the Caodong School, and Fayan Wenyi founded the Fayan School. Of the five, Linji and Caodong are the only schools that have survived to the present day.

The third period: the beginning of the Song dynasty to the Ming and Qing dynasties (~1,000 years)

Chan Buddhism had already matured by the end of the Tang dynasty (618–907). Chan Master Yongming Yanshou (904–975) and other eminent teachers further advocated and integrated various practices, such as upholding mantras, reciting the Buddha’s name/being mindful of the Buddha, prostrating to the Buddha, repenting of past karma, circumambulating, and chanting sutras. Consequently, the prevailing understanding from this period until the present day has been that the practices of Chan and Pure Land Buddhism are complementary and that their esoteric and esoteric teachings come from the same source.

Master Sheng Yen was born during a time of war and political upheaval. Although he became a monk at a young age, he was unable to find a good teacher under whom to study Chan. The monastery in which he resided also lacked a complete system of education. He later enlisted in the army and migrated to Taiwan, where he once again became a monastic, practising in solitude for six years. Enduring great hardships, he attained a doctorate while in Japan and taught Buddhism in the United States. During this period, he had no monastery to call home, however, despite such difficulties, Master Sheng Yen later observed that his days wandering homeless in the streets were the most burden-free times of his life. It was while living in this unstable and turbulent environment that he received the Dharma lineages of the Linji and Caodong schools.

In describing his own spiritual practice, Master Sheng Yen said: “I had many illnesses throughout my life and the obstructions from my karmic actions were great. Yet, I came upon my initial realisation in my Chan practice during a period when my work in the army was especially demanding. . . . At that time, my body was constantly ill and my work was very difficult, however, I still set aside time every day to read the sutras, make prostrations to the Buddhas, and sit in meditation. I devoted myself fully to my practice without giving up. . . . My religious experiences did not result only from being in a solitary retreat in the mountains, and my foundation in studying Buddhism was not only established in my studies abroad in Tokyo — this is why I often say these two sentences: ‘The busiest people have the most time. The most hardworking people have the best health.’”

Chan, then, is certainly not limited to simply meditating. Rather, Chan is seizing every moment and working hard at all times. This is Master Sheng Yen’s approach to, and vision of, Chan practice.

Energy is our most precious resource, for it is the means by which we transform our creative potential into meaningful action.

— Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche



“养不教,父之过” 这话一点不错。俗谚道:‘养子不教如养驴,养女不教如养猪。’养了儿女不管教,长大了为害社会人群,这岂不是父之过吗?古时候,有一个杀人放火无恶不作的罪犯,判处斩首示众。他要求在临刑之前,吮一吮母亲的乳头,母亲答允了,将乳头送到他嘴里,他狠命一咬将乳头咬掉了——他恨煞母亲没有管教他,小时撒赖放任他,少年时做太保袒护他,以致长大之后,无恶不作,落得今朝斩首示众,悔已迟了。这故事值得那些袒护儿女打老师的父母们,作面镜子。





One should not kill a living being, nor cause it to be killed, nor should one incite another to kill. Do not injure any being, either strong or weak, in the world.

— The Buddha

Approaching Chan, Part 1
by Venerable Guo-Xing

“A defining feature of Chinese Buddhism is the integration of the fundamental Buddhist principles found in India with Chinese Confucian ethics and the Daoist’s pursuit of naturalness and spontaneity. In this process of amalgamation, earlier precepts were re-calibrated to become “Rules of Purity,” tailored to the ethical traditions of the Chinese people, while Indian contemplative practices were replaced by an emphasis on rediscovering one’s inner wisdom, to attract those drawn to the Daoist pursuit of naturalness and spontaneity. As a result, Chinese Buddhism has remained free from the confinement of formal precepts and avoided the pitfalls of romanticised, laissez-faire approaches to Buddhism. While being free from the burden of tradition and leading a lifestyle that is spontaneous and at ease, Chan practitioners nevertheless emphasise and exercise vigour and pure conduct in their daily practice, which is precisely the original intent of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings.”

After Buddhism was brought to China from India, the initial focus on sutra translation gradually evolved into the eight Chinese schools of Mahayana Buddhism: the Three Treatise (Sanlun), Pure Land, Tian Tai, Consciousness-Only (also known as Yogachara), Huayan, Vinaya, Chan, and the Tantric schools. The late Chan Master Sheng Yen (1930–2009) compared the approaches of the eight schools to modern fields of study, stating: “The approach of the Consciousness-Only school resembles that of science, and the Three Treatise school is akin to philosophy. The approaches of the Huayan and Tian Tai schools parallel literature. The mantra school (Shingon shū) and Pure Land can be considered forms of aesthetics. Meanwhile, Chan embodies the core teachings of Buddhadharma. Master Taixu [1890–1947] also said, ‘The crux of Chinese Buddhism is Chan,’ where the teaching of any of the other schools can be reduced to the spirit of Chan. As for the disciplines (Vinaya) school, it is the foundation of Buddhism.”

Recognising precepts as the foundation of Buddhist practice, the implementation of Chan in daily life adheres to the spirit of the Buddhist precepts, while also taking into consideration contemporary laws and ethical standards. In Master Sheng Yen’s view, “The precepts are guidelines for Chan practitioners to lead an ethical life, which can be distilled to the following: One should do whatever is needed, refrain from doing what is not needed, and never commit what is prohibited.” (Master Sheng Yen 1999, 288) Chan Master Baizhang Huaihai (720–814), the fourth-generation heir of the Sixth Patriarch Huineng (638–713), established “The Rules of Purity for Monasteries,” which were drawn up in a way that did not confine them with the specificity of the precepts observed in Theravada Buddhism and some Mahayana schools, while still adhering to their overarching principles. Furthermore, the customs of Chinese society and the characteristics of the broader temporal and geographic contexts were considered in creating these guidelines for Chan’s monastic life. “The objective of setting up such guidelines is for Chan practitioners to live in a way that is content, free of desires, and to encourage the practitioners to follow dhūta [Sanskrit; work intended for spiritual progress] practices and the practices of humbleness and repentance. Consequently, the attitude derived from living this way will be settled and stable, harmonious and engaged. This is also the reason why the Chan monastic lifestyle remains to this day simple, neat and organised, grounded and tranquil.”

Generally speaking, all Buddhist practices are based on precepts, meditative concentration, and wisdom. By observing the Five Precepts*, a Chan practitioner can better achieve concentration and uncover the true wisdom that lies within everyone. Observing the precepts can prevent the conditions for vexation from arising while practising meditative concentration helps to subdue the impact of vexation, yet only the cultivation of wisdom can remove vexation.

This is why Chan emphasises the cultivation of wisdom through practice in everyday life; daily life is Chan. The Sixth Patriarch Huineng said, “Walking, standing, sitting, and laying down — in one pure direct mind, and the unmoved practice ground (direct mind) is the real Pure Land.” His disciple, Master Yongjia (665–713) likewise said, “Walking is Chan. Sitting is Chan. In speech, silence, movement, stillness — the essence of mind is always at ease and tranquil.” This is the reason why many Chan masters attained enlightenment while performing daily chores. One famous example is Master Baizhang’s disciple, Xiangyan Zhixian (812–898), who was an expert in sutras and shastras, but could not attain enlightenment. He decided to leave his monastery to tend the fields daily and investigate hua tou, a form of meditation common to Chan. One day, as he was working in the field, Xiangyan picked up and tossed aside a piece of broken brick, which hit a bamboo stalk with a sharp “crack!” The very instant that he heard the sound, Xiangyen attained enlightenment. This story exemplifies a typical way Chan was practised after the time of the Sixth Patriarch Huineng, when Chan teaching in China had fully evolved into a kind of direct, “sudden” method.

However, this direct method of practice can sometimes be overly abstract and difficult to grasp for beginners, therefore traditional Chan training nowadays begins with sitting meditation (Skt. samadhi). The cultivation of samadhi is taught through sitting in the correct posture and using methods to regulate the body, the breath, and the mind, to enable practitioners to begin to settle and stabilise their minds. Only then can they begin working on uncovering wisdom. In other words, by first following a concrete and clear methodology, new practitioners are able to gather and unify their scattered minds. Then they can begin to uncover their intrinsic wisdom, which is the attainment of so-called “enlightenment” or “seeing one’s true nature.”

This mode of Chan practice is suitable for the majority of people. Historically, in the beginning, stages of Chan instruction in China, this kind of gradual and sequential method has been frequently adopted. Upholding the precepts leads to the development of samadhi, which itself leads to the uncovering of wisdom. Tiantai Master Zhiyi’s (538–97) book, Concise Śamatha-vipaśyanā (小止観) mentions that Chan practitioners must first complete the 25 prerequisite practices before they can really begin the practice of śamatha-vipaśyanā.

At Dharma Drum Mountain, Master Sheng Yen developed a set of standard guidelines and classes to help beginners learn basic meditation, starting from adopting the correct sitting posture, which is then combined with Eight-form Moving Meditation, relaxation exercises, and standing and sitting yoga, to help practitioners regulate their bodies and breathing. Counting breaths, slow walking meditation, and fast walking meditation are taught in conjunction to further help practitioners regulate and focus their minds before more advanced methods are presented.

The true bodhisattva spirit grows out of this personal sense of freedom. You discover that you don’t feel so needy anymore. You don’t crave another refuelling – with shamatha or with other people’s love and attention – because you know within yourself how to be free, how to be confident. With this sense of security and freedom, you begin to direct your attention to the needs of others. The compassion expands.

— Tsoknyi Rinpoche














第二节 成实学派













第三节 律学派









第四节 法相学派












































第五节 三论学派















第六节 法华学派











第七节 华严学派

































The Buddha’s teaching rests on two truths:
Conventional truth and ultimate truth.
Those who do not understand the distinction between them
Do not understand Buddha’s profound truth.
Ultimate truth cannot be taught without basis on relative truth;
Without realisation of the meaning of ultimate truth
Enlightenment cannot be attained.

— Nāgārjuna

Heart Jewel of the Fortunate: An Introduction to Dzogchen, the Great Perfection
by His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche

Homage to my teacher!
The Great Master of Oddiyana once said:
Don’t investigate the roots of things,
Investigate the root of Mind!
Once the Mind’s root has been found,
You’ll know one thing yet all is thereby freed.
But if the root of Mind you fail to find,
You will know everything but nothing understand.

When you start to meditate on your mind, sit up with your body straight, allowing your breath to come and go naturally, and with eyes neither closed nor wide open, gaze into the space in front of you. Think to yourself that for the sake of all beings who have been your mothers, you will watch Awareness, the face of Samantabhadra. Pray strongly to your root teacher inseparable from Padmasambhava, the Guru from Oddiyana, and then mingle your mind with his and settle in a balanced meditative state.

Once you are settled, however, you will not stay long in this empty, clear state of awareness. Your mind will start to move and become agitated. It will fidget and run here, there and everywhere, like a monkey. What you are experiencing at this point is not the nature of the mind, but only thoughts. If you stick with them and follow them, you will find yourself recalling all sorts of things, thinking about all sorts of needs, and planning all sorts of activities. It is precisely this kind of mental activity that in the past has hurled you into the dark ocean of samsara. And there’s no doubt that it will do the same in the future. It would be so much better if you could cut through the ever-spreading, black delusion of your thoughts!

Now, supposing you are able to break out of your chains of thoughts, what is awareness like? It is empty, limpid, stunning, light, free, and joyful! It is not something bounded or demarcated by its own set of attributes. There is nothing in the whole of samsara and nirvana that it does not embrace. From time without beginning, it is inborn within us; we have never been without it, and yet it is wholly outside the range of action, effort and imagination.

But what, you will ask, is it like to recognise awareness, the face of rigpa [wisdom]? Well, although you experience it, you simply can’t describe it — it would be like a dumb man trying to describe his dreams! It is impossible to distinguish between yourself resting in awareness and the awareness that you are experiencing. When you rest quite naturally, nakedly, in the boundless state of awareness, all those speedy, pestering thoughts, that would not stay quiet even for an instant — all those memories, all those plans that cause you so much trouble — lose their power. They disappear in the spacious, cloudless sky of awareness. They shatter, collapse, and vanish. All their strength is lost in awareness.

You actually have this awareness within you. It is the clear, naked wisdom of dharmakaya. But who can introduce you to it? On what should you take your stand? What should you be certain of? To begin with, it is your teacher who shows you the state of your awareness. And when you recognise it for yourself, it is then that you are introduced to your own nature. Then, with the understanding that all the appearances of both samsara and nirvana are but the display of your own awareness, take your stand upon awareness alone. Just like the waves that rise up out of the sea and sink back into it, all thoughts that appear sink back into awareness. Be certain of their dissolution, and as a result, you will find yourself in a state utterly devoid of both meditator and something meditated — completely beyond the meditating mind.

“Oh, in that case,” you might think, “there’s no need for meditation.” Well, I can assure you that there certainly is a need! The mere recognition of awareness will not liberate you. Throughout your lives from beginningless time, you have been enveloped in false beliefs and deluded habits. From then until now you have spent every moment of your lives as the miserable, pathetic slave of your thoughts! And when you die, it’s not at all certain where you will go. You will follow your karma, and you will have to suffer. That’s the reason why you must meditate, continuously preserving the state of awareness that you have been introduced to. The omniscient Longchenpa has said: “You may recognise your own nature, but if you do not meditate and get used to it, you will be like a baby left on a battlefield: you’ll be carried off by the enemy, your own thoughts!” In general terms, meditation means becoming familiar with the state of resting in the primordial, uncontrived nature, through being spontaneously, naturally, and constantly mindful. It means getting used to leaving the state of awareness alone, divested of all distractions and clinging.

Now, how are we to get used to remaining in the nature of the mind? When thoughts come while you are meditating, let them come; there’s no need to regard them as your enemies. When they arise, relax in their arising. On the other hand, if they don’t arise, don’t be nervously wondering whether they will. Just rest in their absence. If during your meditation, big, well-defined thoughts suddenly appear, it is easy to recognise them. But when slight, subtle movements occur, it is hard to realise that they are there until much later. This is what we call namtok wogyu, the undercurrent of mental wandering. This is the thief of your meditation, so it is important for you to keep a close watch. If you can be constantly mindful, both in meditation and afterwards, when you are eating, sleeping, walking or sitting, then that’s it; you’ve got it right!

The Great Master Guru Rinpoche has said:

A hundred things may be explained, a thousand told,
But one thing only should you grasp.
Know one thing and everything is freed—
Remain within your inner nature. Be aware!

It is also said that if you do not meditate, you will not gain certainty; if you do, you will. But what sort of certainty? If you meditate with a strong, joyful endeavour, signs will appear that show that you have got used to staying in your nature. That fierce, tight clinging that you have to phenomena, experienced dualistically, will gradually loosen up, and your obsession with happiness and suffering, hopes and fears, etc., will slowly weaken. Your devotion to the teacher and your sincere trust in his instructions will grow. After a time, your tense, dualistic attitudes will evaporate and you will get to the point where gold and pebbles, food and filth, gods and demons, virtue and non-virtue are all the same for you — you’ll be at a loss to choose between paradise and hell! But in the meantime, until you reach that point (while you are still caught in the experiences of dualistic perception), virtue and non-virtue, buddha fields and hells, happiness and pain, actions and their results — all this is a reality for you. As the Great Guru has said, “My view is higher than the sky, but my attention to actions and their results is finer than flour.”

So it won’t do to go around saying you’re a Dzogchen meditator when all you are is a belching, farting lout!

It is essential for you to have a stable foundation of pure devotion and samaya, together with a strong, joyful endeavour that is well-balanced, neither too tense nor too loose. If you are able to meditate, completely turning aside from the activities and concerns of this life, it is certain that you will gain the extraordinary qualities of the profound path of Dzogchen. Why wait for future lives? You can capture the primordial citadel right now, in the present.

This advice is the very blood of my heart. Hold it close and never let it go!

When you say something really unkind, when you do something in retaliation, your anger increases. You make the other person suffer, and he will try hard to say or to do something back to get relief from his suffering. That is how conflict escalates.

— Thich Nhat Hanh