What is Chan?

This is the transcript of a talk given by Master Sheng Yen in 1977, at the beginning of his teaching career in the US. It was originally published in a small pamphlet.

I wish to start by telling you that Chan is not the same as knowledge, yet knowledge is not completely apart from Chan. Chan is not just religion, yet the achievements of religion can be reached through Chan. Chan is not philosophy, yet philosophy can in no way exceed the scope of Chan. Chan is not science, yet the spirit of emphasizing reality and experience is also required in Chan. Therefore, please do not try to explore the content of Chan motivated by mere curiosity, for Chan is not something new brought here [to the USA] by Asians; Chan is present everywhere, in space without limit and time without end. However before the Buddhism of the East was propagated in the western world, the people of the West never knew of the existence of Chan. The Chan taught by Asians in the West is not, in fact, the real Chan; it is merely the method to realize Chan. Chan was first discovered by a prince named Siddhartha Gautama (called Shakyamuni after his enlightenment), who was born in India about 2500 years ago. After he became enlightened and was called the Buddha, he taught us the method to know Chan. This method was transmitted from India to China, and then to Japan. In India the method was called dhyana, which is pronounced “Chan” in Chinese, and “Zen” in Japanese. Actually, all three are identical.

Chan has universal and eternal existence. It has no need of any teacher to transmit it; what is transmitted by teachers is just the method by which one can personally experience this Chan.

Some people mistakenly understand Chan to be some kind of mysterious experience; others think that one can attain supernatural powers through the experience of Chan. Of course, the process of practicing Chan meditation may cause various kinds of strange occurrences on the level of mental and physical sensation; and also, through the practice of unifying body and mind, one may be able to attain the mental power to control or alter external things. But such phenomena, which are looked upon as mysteries of religion, are not the aim of Chan practice, because they can only satisfy one’s curiosity or megalomania, and cannot solve the actual problems of people’s lives.

Chan starts from the root of the problem. It does not start with the idea of conquering the external social and material environments, but starts with gaining thorough knowledge of one’s own self. The moment you know what your self is, this “I” that you now take to be yourself will simultaneously disappear. We call this new knowledge of the notion of self “enlightenment” or “seeing ones buddha-nature.” This is the beginning of helping you to thoroughly solve real problems. In the end, you will discover that you the individual, together with the whole of existence, are but one totality which cannot be divided.

Because you yourself have imperfections, you therefore feel the environment is imperfect. It is like a mirror with an uneven surface, the images reflected in it are also distorted. Or, it is like the surface of water disturbed by ripples, the moon reflected in it is irregular and unsettled. If the surface of the mirror is clear and smooth, or if the air on the surface of the water is still and the ripples calmed, then the reflection in the mirror and the moon in the water will be clear and exact. Therefore, from the point of view of Chan, the major cause of the pain and misfortune suffered by humanity is not the treacherous environment of the world in which we live, nor the dreadful society of humankind, but the fact that we have never been able to recognize our basic nature. So the method of Chan is not to direct us to evade reality, nor to shut our eyes like the African ostrich when enemies come, and bury our heads in the sand, thinking all problems are solved. Chan is not a self-hypnotizing idealism.

By the practice of Chan one can eliminate the “I”; not only the selfish, small “I”, but also the large “I”, which in philosophy is called “Truth” or “the Essence.” Only then is there absolute freedom. Thus an accomplished Chan practitioner never feels that any responsibility is a burden, nor does he feel the pressure that the conditions of life exert on people. He only feels that he is perpetually bringing the vitality of life into full activity. This is the expression of absolute freedom. Therefore the life of Chan is inevitably normal and positive, happy and open. The reason for this is that the practice of Chan will continually provide you with a means to excavate your precious mine of wisdom. The deeper the excavation, the higher the wisdom that is attained, until eventually you obtain all the wisdom of the entire universe. At that time, there is not a single thing in all of time and space that is not contained within the scope of your wisdom. At that stage wisdom becomes absolute; and since it is absolute, the term wisdom serves no further purpose. To be sure, at that stage the “I” that motivated you to pursue such things as fame, wealth and power, or to escape from suffering and danger, has completely disappeared. What is more, even the wisdom which eliminated your “I” becomes an unnecessary concept to you.

Of course, from the viewpoint of sudden enlightenment it is very easy for a Chan practitioner to reach this stage; nevertheless before reaching the gate of sudden enlightenment one must exert a great deal of effort on the journey. Otherwise the methods of Chan would be useless.