The Wondrous Functions of the Mind: A Letter to Zheng Fang Lian

By Chan Master Zhongfeng Mingben

Zhongfeng Mingben (1262-1323) was an eminent Chan master of the Linji lineage in the Yuan dynasty. He was one of the very few to receive transmission from his teacher, Chan Master Gaofeng Yuanmiao (1239-1295), the protagonist of the famous gongan, "Do you have mastery of yourself when you are in a dreamless sleep?"

The invisible bug is able to rest on everything but not on fire. The mind of sentient beings can relate to everything (as an object of cognition) but not to prajna. But what really is the mind of sentient beings and what really is the essence of prajna? Why this talk about the ability and inability to relate to phenomena? Well, let me explain: "Reined with golden bridle, the horse whinnies on the fragrant grass; in the jade pavilion, the lady is enraptured by the spring blossoming of Apricot flowers" — this is the mind of sentient beings. "In the jade pavilion, the lady is enraptured by the spring blossoming of Apricot flowers; reined with golden bridle, the horse whinnies on the fragrant grass" — this is the essence of prajna. "On fragrant grass whinnies the golden bridled horse; the spring blossoming of Apricot flowers enraptures the lady in the jade pavilion" — this is the ability and inability to relate to phenomena. If you get this directly without any hesitation, you would have seen [true reality].

Apart from the mind of sentient beings, there is no prajna essence; when the waves subside, the water returns to its original state. Apart from prajna essence, there is no mind of sentient beings; when there is water, waves will naturally arise. When emotive conceptualization of what is saintly and what is worldly is ended, and when the view of subject and object subsides, the worlds of the ten directions become one great field of complete enlightenment. All sentient beings have originally attained Buddhahood. At this place, you would not be able to find the tiniest bit of thing to be the mind of sentient beings; and you would not be able to find the tiniest bit of thing that is prajna essence, let alone finding the tiniest bit of thing to support the theory of being able or not able to relate to phenomena. This is what we call the True Suchness Dharma gate of one taste and universality. Because of it, the Buddhas of the past, present, and future are able to set the wheel of Dharma in motion; with it, the ancestral masters of the past were able to open the true eyes [of Dharma]; relying on it, the firmament shelters the world; based on it, the earth holds up everything. The saints utilize it to bring order and peace to all places; a noble person accords with it to fulfill the virtue of benevolence and enact policies to administer the land.

It is just that the multitude uses it everyday without knowing it. Having their back turned against it, they get more and more alienated from it. Due to this estrangement, worldly characteristics arise through prajna essence; from these worldly characteristics, the mind of sentient beings is generated; following this mind of sentient beings, different karmic actions are performed. As a result, one wanders around from place to place, leading to endless cyclic existence.

What we call prajna essence is none other than the potent and wondrous awareness from which the six sense functions flow forth. It is like a room that encompasses empty space, having six doors open on the sides, without obstructing each other. What we call the mind of sentient beings is none other than that which habitually follows the six sense objects of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought. It constantly grabs and rejects things it encounters, generating feelings of liking and aversion, grasping and attaching [to things] thought after thought, without interruption.

Prajna essence is analogous to water and the mind of sentient beings to waves. When the ocean of mind is perturbed by the wind of conditions it encounters, waves arise from the water. Apart from the water, the waves have no concrete substance. For one whose great wisdom has shone through in great brightness and openness, he or she would be able to see the unmoving water amidst the thousand convoluted waves, with nothing amiss in both movement and non-movement. If you have not attained this, you are only relying on words that resemble [true wisdom], being profoundly blind to the wisdom essence of wondrous awareness.

[What we call] mind and consciousness are but two names of the same thing. The enlightened ones penetrate consciousness and return to mind; the confused ones turn mind into consciousness. So what is mind? It is just a name given to the wondrous awareness which functions without any confusion. And what is consciousness? It is a name given to the illusory arising of discrimination from the functioning of wondrous awareness. These days, practitioners who discourse in abstruse eloquence mostly hold on to the entity of consciousness, without realizing the mind essence of wondrous awareness.

In reality, what we call wondrous awareness is not itself an object to be known. This is why the ancients said that a mirror does not reflect itself and a fire does not burn itself. If a mirror reflects itself, it would not be able to mirror other objects; if a fire burns itself, it would not be able to burn other objects. The mind essence is the same. If what we call wondrous awareness knows itself as an entity of awareness, it will not be able to know everything else. If one comes to know it as an object of awareness, what is known must actually be the entity of consciousness, not mind essence. Consciousness is the very object of the changeability of birth and death. If one holds on to it, how can one transcend birth and death?

The very essence of mind cannot be seen, heard, known, sensed, nor can it be grabbed or rejected. Whatever that can be generated is illusory, unreal, and inverted. If it is not something to be seen, heard, known, or sensed, how can a practitioner attain it as a transcendental realization? Well, all one should do is to depart from everything that can be seen, heard, known, or sensed, to the point that the one who departs and that which is being departed from (object) are brought into emptiness and quiescence. The mind essence will then simply manifest amidst that which can be seen, heard, known or sensed. When the ancients silently came into accordance and vividly realized this, the non-obstruction of all phenomena and conditions followed naturally.

However, if one desires to depart from the illness of the seen, heard, known, and sensed, this desire itself will in actuality enhance the illness. This is why the ancients came up with a skillful mean of practice. They put forth a meaningless huatou, instructing practitioners to investigate it thoroughly. If one [throws all one’s attention] into the investigation of the huatou, one would naturally depart from the seen, heard, known, sensed, etc., without having to do so with any contrivance. In the various records of the transmission of lamps, we know that the ancestral masters did not generate doubt sensations through the use of huatou. Rather, they spontaneously realized non-arising through some spoken words. This is because they were truly and genuinely determined to resolve the great affair of birth and death. Even before they entered the gate of chan practice, the thought of impermanence and the gravity of the affair of birth and death had already been palpitating. This thought stuck in their minds and they were unable to bring about a resolution of it. As a result, they traveled and wandered around, going thousands of miles, entering into remote places enshrouded completely by wild grasses, with the wind as their only companion, [seeking for a resolution]. They went forth single-mindedly and diligently, with no other purpose than to thoroughly enlighten to "who they are". If they could not realize the resolution after practicing for decades, their doubt sensation of birth and death would grow stronger with time, not for one moment would they let go of this intention. If one can practice with such power of wisdom, there will be no need to worry that the light will not shine through.

Alas! Nowadays human minds are shallow and restless. Many people claim themselves to be practicing chan. The fact is, most only desire to be learned in the forms of practice and use them as material for gossip. Since they do not set their minds on resolving the great affair of birth and death, the more they talk, the more they are entrapped in their conceptions, entwined ever more deeply by the vines, leading to the reinforcement of birth and death. How unfortunate!

If you want to emulate the Buddhas and the ancestral masters, you must generate the proper aspiration of resolving the great affair of birth and death. Hang it on your eyelashes! So that even if you are enmeshed in myriad happenings and you are bombarded by myriad activities of the mind, you do not give rise to even one deviating intention, generating thoughts of discrimination, thus obstructing your aspiration. If this aspiration to resolve [the great affair] of birth and death is not genuine and sincere, it is certain that you will not be able to truly practice in daily living. And if you were to force yourself, it will only be a fleeting effort, not long lasting. Even if you are so intelligent and sharp that you can gain some understanding from the words of the ancients, that will only increase your knowledge, having no benefit whatsoever as far as the affair of birth and death is concerned. This is due to the lack of a genuine aspiration.

There are three essential requisites on the Path of practice: The first is to set your mind sincerely on the affair of birth and death; the second is to see through the illusoriness and fleetingness of worldly concerns such as honor and humiliation, gain and loss; the third is the determination to persevere along the path, never to regress. If one of these requisites is missing, your practice will be crippled; if two of them are missing, you will be lost; and if all three are missing, even if you were to commit the whole Tripitaka to memory and to deeply immerse yourself in cartloads of books, it will only feed into the karmic stream of your consciousness, engendering your pride and arrogance, having no benefit whatsoever to your [affair of birth and death].

In the past, a monk asked Master Zhao Zhou, "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" Zhao Zhou answered, "Wu!" This single word "wu" is like the great sword of heaven and the poison smeared drum. Those who come into contact with it will die instantly and those who engage with it will have their spirits shocked into oblivion. Even the Buddhas and the ancestral masters do not dare to look at it straight on. Since the time it was proffered, many people have been intrigued by it, and as a result many attained realization through it. However, there were also a large number who got it wrong. If you want to thoroughly enlighten to the great intention of the Buddhas and the ancestral masters, and to completely penetrate your true mind, why don’t you place this word "wu" among the writing tablets and the desks? Whether you are speaking or silent, on the move or at rest, hang the huatou in there! Look into it closely and unceasingly. What really is it all about? Why did Zhao Zhou say "wu"? Investigate it while you are on the move, examine it while you are seated. Dwell on it and be intrigued by it day and night, without relenting for even one instant. While you are investigating it and examining it, do not try to understand it in the worldly sense or in the transcendental sense. Just go on as if nothing is happening in front of your eyes. If the flow of your investigation is smooth and seamless, do not be joyous because of that. If the flow of your investigation is intermittent and scattered, do not become discouraged. Whether you can truly do it or not, just carry on in a matter-of-fact manner. Do not give rise to the thought of wanting to find some skillful way to enhance the practice. Giving rise to such a thought is in fact creating an interruption in your practice. If you carry on unceasingly in this manner, by and by, your practice will naturally become seamless and it will happen that spontaneously the inner mind and the outer world will both be emptied and cleared. Instantly the saintly and the worldly will be transcended. At that point, you will realize that the Way is to be attained within your very being, not from anything external.

You have suffered in this impermanent world of birth and death for innumerable kalpas without being able to attain liberation. That is not due to any external causes. The very cause of this condition is the confusion and ignorance of your own mind. When the mind is confused, it enters into [birth and death] willingly. Nothing external could make it so. It is not so because of heaven and earth, or spirits and deities. If this willingness has its cause in external objects, it cannot be called willingness. Because it does not arise due to external objects, we say that it arises willingly. Since it is your own willingness that results in the entrapment of birth and death, you will not be able to transcend it and move towards nirvana without generating a profound willingness for such a purpose. If you intend to wait for the guidance and advice of the saints and sages to prod you into action, just consider the fact that when you entered the samsaric flow, it was not due to the prodding of others! Contemplating in this manner, if we can be willing to end the mind that clings to birth and death and turn towards the path, everyone will attain [enlightenment]. This is why the ancients said, "If one were to set one’s mind as strongly on the path as one does on emotional attachments, one would have attained Buddhahood long ago," and, "If you engender a determined willingness [to practice], I can assure you that you will not be fooled." Such words are not said to deceive others!

In the past, Minister Feng wrote the following verse about his practice:
When not attending to my official duties, I enjoy sitting meditation.
It was long ago that I last laid my body down when sleeping.
Even though I live my life as a government minister,
All across the four oceans, people know of me as an elder on the Path.

Prince Li had this verse about practice:
A man on the path is a man with an iron will,
Whatever one encounters, the course of action is made instantly.
Directly coursing towards the supreme Bodhi,
Paying no attention to the disputes of the world.

Layman Pang said:
There is nothing special about my daily living,
It is only I being in harmony with myself.
Not grasping or rejecting anything,
Not favoring or opposing any conditions.
Who designated red as "red" and purple as "purple"?
The hills and the mountains are all free of dust.
Miraculous powers and wondrous functions,
Are but gathering wood and carrying water.

The scholar Zhang Zhuo said in his verse:
The luminous light illuminates the innumerable worlds quiescently,
The worldly and the saintly–all sentient beings are of my own household.
When not a single thought arises, it manifests completely,
When the six sense faculties move ever so slightly, it is covered by cloud.
To eradicate vexation will enhance your ill-ness,
Working towards true suchness is also deviated.
Flow with the world with no obstruction,
Nirvana and Samsara are both illusory flowers in the sky.

The respectable Zhao Qingxian composed the following verse:
Sitting silently in the court behind the desk,
The mind source unmoved–clear as water.
In the crash of a thunderbolt, the crown of the head splits open,
I recall what I have always had long ago.

These are all gentry who roamed and played in the great field of complete enlightenment without departing from worldly merits and fame. If the ancients could be like this, there is no reason why people today cannot do the same. If one has a profound faith and practices sincerely, there will be no difference between people today and people of old. Do not be hesitant! Otherwise you will be drawing a boundary to confine yourself.

The Buddhadharma is the gate of great liberation. The only requisites are that one should see the issue of birth and death as a grave affair, generate a profound faith, and straightforwardly investigate one’s huatou with great effort. One should be most careful against reckoning and weighing one’s progress, trying to figure out one’s gain and loss. Do not be like practitioners of the two vehicles of individual liberation, who employ various methods such as loathing their bodies, avoiding contacts with the environment, quenching thoughts, relinquishing conditions, discarding what they love, expelling aversions, driving away emotional attachments, trying to depart from the illusory. Moreover, you should not run away from the clamor and seek quietude, or engage yourself in discriminating right from wrong, to grab the saintly and reject the worldly, or to fight against scattered mind and stupor. If you depart from the proper mindfulness of investigating "Wu" and give rise to the tiniest bit of concern for what I mentioned above, the sword would have swung by long before you realized it! It would be impossible for you to realize enlightenment. The only purpose of chan practice is to realize enlightenment. You should take care not to part with your huatou no matter what happens. If you give rise to any intention other than that of realizing enlightenment, you will not be attuned to the practice. Put utmost care into assuring this!

Practitioners today often preconceive an emotive idea of the saintly and the worldly. This conceptualization stays latent in the storehouse consciousness, and as a result, when thoughts arise, discriminations follow. These people generate the feelings of aversion and annoyance even before engaging in a task; and they constantly reckon and worry even before coming into contact with things. Well, if you cannot penetrate through directly and straightforwardly, you will just be toiling about busily, gaining no benefit in principle. Stay on guard of the huatou in a seamless manner, and make this seamless practice even more seamless. When you are practicing seamlessly, do not entertain any thought about this seamlessness. As soon as you give rise to such a thought, you will fall into [the trap of] seamlessness and you will be no longer attuned to the practice. [If you can just] persevere to the point that your practice is proficient and refined, the deluded emotional attachments of liking and aversion, grasping and rejecting, right and wrong will all be thoroughly eradicated without any contrivance, without a second thought.

The purpose of the Confucian path is to cultivate and refine the mind while the purpose of the Buddhist path is to enlighten and realize the mind. Cultivating and refining is gradual while enlightening and realizing is sudden. Although the mind is the same, the graduated path and the sudden path are different. And this difference is precisely that of the worldly and the transcendental. If the Buddha were to talk about how one should conduct oneself in the world, he would not be deviating from the [Confucian] teaching of making the mind upright and making one’s intention sincere. Likewise, if Confucius were to talk about the way of the transcendental, the teaching could not be other than the essential principle of emptying the mind and attaining complete enlightenment. If one does not truly understand the great expediency of teachings and means of transformation instituted by the saints, one would merely be arguing and debating about them, bringing all sorts of disputes and quarrels.

When one engages in the study of worldly learning, the eight subjects of cultivating the Way, virtue, benevolence, righteousness, proper conduct, music, law, and [sociopolitical] order are not something alienated from the wondrous functions of the mind. When the mind has no obstruction, it is called the Way; if the mind is upright, it is called being virtuous; if the mind is infused with kindness, it is called benevolence; if the mind is objective, it is called righteousness; if the mind is undeviating, it is called proper conduct; if the mind is gentle and tranquil, it is called the joy [of musical aesthetics]; if the mind is straightforward, it is call the law; if the mind is imbued with clarity, it is called order. In fact, not only these eight subjects, but the hundreds and thousands of wholesome conducts–any action that is beneficial to the world and the multitude, all come about due to the wondrous functioning of the mind. A worldly person turns his or her back on it and loses this wondrous function. This is how all sorts of confusion and chaos come into being. As a result, the saints had no choice but to institute their teachings to rectify the situation. To further demonstrate this, I offer the following verses:

The ultimate Way has always been intimate with the mind,
Having attained no mind, you will see the reality of the Way as it is.
When the mind, the Way, existence, and nothingness are all extinguished,
You become an idle person in this universe of innumerable world systems.

Virtues are to be found in the nature of the myriad objects,
But only the virtues of human beings resonate with the mind.
Ever since I came to know of this,
In conversation or silence, clarity shines in accordance with the ultimately just.

The saints instituted a great diversity of teachings,
Transforming, educating, nurturing, and refining the multitude throughout this vast space and time.
Wanting to be benevolent, benevolence manifests,
There is no need to seek for anything outside the mind.

When the mind has achieved equanimity, the equality of self and others will be actualized,
Everything in one’s daily living will be just fitting and appropriate.
As long as one sees the sameness of the Dharma nature of all,
This does not obstruct one from exercising kindness or authority.

It is not because of etiquette that one conducts oneself in a dignified manner,
When the mind is undeviating, proper conduct will be perfected naturally.
When we meet, there is no need to present elaborate gifts,
One snap of the fingers shows our authenticity and innocence.

The wind ensemble of nature plays a flute with no hole in the middle of the night,
The gushing water of the rivers strums a harp with no string in the morning light.
If you want to know wherefore one can attain this happiness,
It is to be found in your very mind.

To harbor unwholesome thoughts is to bring about punishments for the mind,
Three thousand rules and laws are instituted to govern this body of yours.
A man on the Path forgets all about good and evil,
While Law and order are clearly and vividly administered.

The mind is like a scale, indicating what is heavy and what is light,
When loaded, the weight is clearly shown.
Since time immemorial, all benevolent governings are similar,
For thousands of years, they have served as a standard for human beings to behold.





(曾普信 著)


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