Legend tells us that Chan Buddhism began in India, specifically when the Buddha transmitted his true dharma to one and only one disciple, Mahakashyapa. History, however, tells us a different story, namely that Chan originated in China some time around the 6th century. Over time, the Chan school spread throughout most of the Chinese sphere of cultural influence—to Korea, Vietnam, and of course Japan, and it is by its Japanese name, Zen, that Westerners recognize it best. Of course, it is not just the name; the Japanese tradition is by far the most familiar and visible of Chan’s various cultural manifestations, though Korean and Vietnamese traditions as well have gained sizable footing in the West. All of which makes for a certain irony: while Chan originated in China, and while China, after the Indian subcontinent, has been the most historically influential home for Buddhism, Westerners tend by and large to have very little working knowledge of contemporary Chinese Buddhism.

The first great ancestor of the Chan school is Bodhidharma, the “Western barbarian” who is said to have brought the lineage from India to China. A famous four-line stanza attributed to Bodhidharma describes Chan’s salient characteristics:

A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not depending on words and letters;
Directly pointing to the mind
Seeing into one’s true nature and attaining Buddhahood.

As the first line above makes clear, and as has been made clear in countless ways since, the “special transmission outside the scriptures,” the mind-to-mind transmission said to have begun with Shakyamuni Buddha and Mahakashyapa, lies at the core of Chan. Indeed, as the Exodus is for Judaism and the Resurrection is for Christianity, this transmission is an integral part of Chan’s self-definition. As much as anything, it is what makes Chan, Chan. It also, one might argue, demonstrates Chan’s distinctly Chinese character, for its transmission style is unlike styles developed in India, whether they were based on scriptures or on esoteric practice.

We in the West have struggled to come to terms with the meaning of transmission of lineage in Chan in its various cultural forms, and it is, I think, altogether fitting that we should do so. We have been beguiled by its mystique, and we have been put off by its failures. We have tried idealizing it, we have tried rejecting it, and we have tried ignoring it. Nothing seems to work really, and that too is probably altogether fitting. Some things just take time.

Dharma transmission in Chan is grounded in traditional East Asian cultural experience, a cultural experience very different from that of the modern West. If we are to understand it, we would do well to try to see across that divide, not ignore it, and get a sense, from the inside, of what transmission means in the context in which it originated. It is with this in mind that we have selected the following excerpts from Master Guo Jun’s book, Essential Chan Buddhism: The Spirit and Character of Chinese Zen, a clear, concise, and practical introduction to contemporary Chan. The two sections complement each other and, we hope, make understandable the attitudes that although they are unfamiliar to most Westerners, lie at the heart of Chan tradition.

Chan Master Guo Jun is abbot of Mahabodhi Monastery in Singapore and teaches internationally. He is the youngest dharma heir of Chan Master Sheng Yen (1930–2009) and served from 2005 to 2008 as abbot of the latter’s retreat center in Pine Bush, New York. Guo Jun is a native of Singapore, where he was born in 1974, and he received his full monastic ordination in Taiwan in 1998. He is a lineage holder in the Chan, Xianshou, and Cien schools of Chinese Buddhism.

—Andrew Cooper, Features Editor

Respect for Ancestors

Respect for our ancestors is at the heart of both Chinese culture and Chan.

The reasons to offer respect and to keep our ancestors always in our minds are self-evident to us, but perhaps it seems a little strange to Westerners. What do we mean by respect for our ancestors, how does it apply to Chan, and what wisdom can we derive from it that is useful to us, whether we are from China or the West?

In Chan we have what’s called “paying tribute.” On the new moon and full moon, twice a month, we pay respect to our lineage masters. We look into the essence of the virtue and the qualities that have been passed down to us. We acknowledge these qualities in ourselves, and we seek to pass them on to others.

This is very different from the traditional mode of Chinese ancestor worship, which is superficial and ritualistic and has a Confucian flavor of obedience and filial piety. In Chan, we venerate our lineage masters after a thorough investigation. We also pay respect to our lineage masters at the end of Chan retreats, when we can feel the qualities that have been passed down to us.

At the simplest level, we seek to emulate the virtue of our ancestors in our minds, our hearts, our speech, and our actions. The word “virtue” in the West has a kind of self-righteous, holier-than-thou connotation. This is not the way we think of virtue in China. There are many ways to write “virtue” in Chinese. In the way I’m using it here, one side of the ideogram represents a double person; the other side is the character for “heart.” Virtue can be thought of as having the heart of two people. You are able to feel and give more. You have extra compassion and empathy. It also implies courage.

When we seek to emulate the virtue of our ancestors it is not necessarily for their lofty ideals. If our grandmother was generous, the best way to pay respect to our grandmother is to be like her and be a generous person. If your grandfather was courageous, the best way to pay respect to your grandfather is to be a courageous person. Have that virtue in you.

In China, there are rituals that support this kind of respect, such as chanting or making an offering. There is nothing wrong with them: they are gestures, but they are not necessarily Chan if they are only for appearances.

The teachings of Chan are always about the heart and the mind. And Chan emphasizes daily life. You hold the qualities of those who have passed away in your heart and mind, and you also put those qualities into practice in the way that you live.

Respect for our ancestors in Chan also helps us have gratitude. It is part of our four great vows: to save sentient beings, cut off endless vexations, master limitless approaches to dharma, and attain supreme buddhahood.

If we’re selfish, then we will not be able to give rise to vows. It is only when we are touched by others through gestures of love and kindness that we are able to turn ourselves in the direction of helping others. These gestures of love and kindness come most directly from our ancestors. In order for people to love others, they must first experience love themselves.

In Chan, we also feel that it is our ancestors that have allowed us to come in contact with the Buddha’s teaching. Without them we would not have the chance to overcome suffering and to help others do so. Because of that, we feel a profound gratitude. We bow deeply with respect. In Chinese we have a saying: “When you drink water, reflect on the source; when we eat fruit, bow to the tree.”

When we recognize and acknowledge the source of things, we experience gratitude, and from this gratitude come feelings of joy and peace. As a Chan monk, I am always aware of my teachers and all the other lineage masters and the Buddha from whom the teachings come. They all made sacrifices so I can learn Chan.

Our suffering was not caused by our parents or grandparents. It was merely passed down. We are social animals. We grow through modeling. We teach what we have learned. We act as we have been acted upon. A person who is not loving has not experienced love. It is not his fault. Realizing this gives rise to forgiveness. And in Chan we vow that suffering will stop with us. We will not pass it down.

Chan takes the folk religion of ancestor worship and the Confucian model of respect for our ancestors as fundamental to social continuity and harmony and adds to it and deepens it, helping us experience profound levels of gratitude, which gives rise to feelings of love and forgiveness. In its respect for ancestors, Chan emphasizes a spiritual lineage that goes back 2,500 years to the Buddha and celebrates the continuation of an ancient tradition of kindness and love.

My First Master

Everything has two sides, the good and the bad, the easy and hard, the pleasant and difficult. Chan has two sides as well. Chan masters will use a stick and hit you. They punch and shout. They can be really nasty. Why? They are testing you, testing your devotion and dedication.

I had my own form of this kind of training from my ordination master, Song Nian. His nuns could not hide their gloating when I became a monk. Now, as the youngest of his disciples, I would be his attendant. That terrible job no longer fell on them.

When I became a monk, I asked Song Nian, “When do I get my robes?”

He said, “That is your business, not mine. Go find them yourself.”

Song Nian was in a Chan lineage, but he didn’t teach. He was renowned for his calligraphy and bonsai. He had come to Singapore after fleeing Mainland China in 1949 when the Communists took over. He was from an aristocratic family, and he feared for his life.

At birth, Song Nian didn’t move or breathe. His mother gave him away to one of his sisters and wanted nothing more to do with him. He was sickly but precocious and entered university at the young age of 16.

It was my job to take care of him. He was a tall man with a big build. When he was younger he had been a master of the martial arts. He was known for being handsome. He was also a calligrapher, and the combination of warrior and artist gave him a unique and compelling charisma. He was also a scholar, but scholars are not usually as physically strong and graceful. He had long white eyebrows, and even at 87, his age when I first became his disciple, he always walked at a great pace. I had to run to keep up with him.

In his old age he had become enormously cantankerous. He would scold and scold and scold me from the first moment he saw me in the morning to when he closed his door each night in my face.

Every meal was one complaint after another, a litany of woes and gripes. I never served him the right amount of food.

On one day he would complain that his plate was too full.

“Are you trying to stuff me to death?” he would say. “Are you trying to bloat me and burst me with food?”

The next day I would give him less.

“Guo Jun,” he hissed. “Why do you give me so little?”

“Master, yesterday you said I gave you too much!”

“Seeds for Hell!” he barked, using my nickname and shaking his finger at me as if to curse. “Today, I am more active. I am hungry. I need more food!”

The breakfast of brown rice and bean porridge was never right. It was either too thick or too thin. Because he was old and his teeth were bad, he couldn’t chew. So the porridge couldn’t be too thick. But if it was too thin, he’d hiss and point his finger: “Seeds For Hell, you are serving me soup!”

When we ate, I had to finish exactly one moment after him. If I was done eating before he was, he would scold me. “Why do you finish so fast? You are rushing me.” If I finished after him, I was scolded. “Why are you so slow, Guo Jun? You always make me wait.”

I had to help him around because he was frail. If I grabbed him too tightly to help him get up or walk, he’d shout at me. If I held him too lightly, he’d say I wanted him to fall and die. I had to walk just to his side and slightly behind him. When he turned his head slightly, I immediately had to be next to him, not too close and not too far. I had to anticipate his every wish.

If I walked too loudly, he scolded me for disturbing him. He would cock his head. “Did I hear a horse galloping?” he would say. Or: “Is there an elephant in the monastery?”

If I walked too softly, he called me a ghost and accused me of trying to frighten him by sneaking around. He would be startled. “Which hell are you from?” he would hiss. “You are so quiet, like a snake.”

He had a habit of peering at me with a kind of mock concern. “Guo Jun, you look older since the last time I saw you.” It didn’t matter if that had been two minutes before. “Why have you aged so much?” He would say this in a slithery, ominous tone. Was he trying to teach me impermanence? I still don’t know. “Guo Jun, why do you look so old? Why have you aged?”

After he had an operation for gallstones, I had to sleep outside his room. He wouldn’t hear of letting me sleep next to him on the floor. “I have treasures under my bed,” he barked. “You’re a thief and will steal them.” He had a buzzer by his bed to summon me when he needed to go to the bathroom. If I delayed for an instant, he would wet his bed, and I would get hell from him. Because he was in a wheelchair, I had to shower him and wipe his feces. Perhaps he was teaching me that in order to be a master you first must serve.

The gallstones required emergency surgery. He refused to go to the hospital, and I had to sling him over my shoulder and carry him to the doctor on my back. When I brought him to hospital, he berated me endlessly.

“Seeds for Hell! You are always trying to kill me!”

He called me into his room before I left to study in Taiwan. There were red packets on the table, the kind we use in Asia for monetary gifts. “Whatever is here is my blessing to you,” he said. “Whatever is here is yours.”

When I opened the packets and counted up the money it was enough for a ticket to Taiwan, one way. To this day I think that he sifted through the packets and took out all the larger bills. There was no kindness in him. He made me feel like an adopted child. That is the Chinese way.

He trained me to be mindful and exact. In retrospect, I see that he prepared me for Korea. I learned from him never to say “I don’t know how.” “Seeds for Hell! You have time to say you don’t know how. Why don’t you take that time to go learn?”

Sometimes I’d make him angry on purpose, in a kind of passive-aggressive display of pique or to make him angry for my own amusement. After I cleaned the table, I would place his cup in a slightly different place from where I had found it. As a calligrapher, he was incredibly exact, and the lack of precision I displayed infuriated him. “The cup goes here, not there,” he would hiss, moving it a centimeter one way or another. “I’m not going to teach you. I’ll let you be taught by your disciples.”

My mantra was earliest-latest, most-least, first-last. I woke up earliest and went to bed latest, did the most, and ate the least. I was the first to take the blame and the last one to get credit.

Song Nian was fond of repeating the parable of the waving flag.

Two monks were looking at a flag blowing in the wind and arguing. One said the flag was moving; the other said it was the wind that was moving. Wind or flag? They went to their master to settle the issue. “Neither flag nor wind,” their master said. “The mind is moving.”

Song Nian rarely smiled, but recounting this little story invariably seemed to amuse him.

In the morning service, if I hit the wooden fish, singing bowl, gong, or drum wrong, he would peer around, looking under things and making a great display after we were done.

“What are you doing, master?” I would ask.

“Looking for the lost notes. Have you seen them?”

He scolded me with poems:

I used my true heart
To face the moon.
Who knew
The moon was facing a drain?

“Drain” in this case could be thought of as toilet or sewer.

I was his last disciple. It seems I am always the last disciple. Maybe in my past life I was naughty. That is why it has always been my karma to be taught by dying men.

It is important to be able to take hardship, and basic to Chan is the concept that nothing precious and to be cherished is easily obtained. A bit of pressure is good. It’s healthy. Pain is an inevitable part of growth, and pain is necessary for spiritual development.

We have a traditional saying: “If the disciple, no matter how you scold, will not run away, then you go to the next stage.” You chase him away. No matter how you try to chase him, if he doesn’t run away, then you go to the third stage. You beat him. If he still doesn’t run away, only then do you begin to teach him.

If I used this method on my students and disciples, or just stared at them fiercely, or beat them, or made them do endless remedial tasks, they would say I had no compassion and head for the hills. How would I be able to spread the dharma and deliver sentient beings? Those are my vows. So I have adapted.

Before I left to go to Taiwan, Song Nian blessed me from his wheelchair. I didn’t want to leave him; I didn’t want to go away. He was saying mantras and making mudras and murmuring to himself. He placed both his hands on my head and intoned: “The alms bowl for a thousand families. The lonely, wandering monk will travel ten thousand miles. I’ll see you in a week,” he said. I thought he must have lost his mind. Aside from the gallstones, he’d had two strokes and several major heart attacks. He refused to take heart medicine. His cardiologist, a younger man, died before him. He was a tough old bird.

I bid him farewell and flew to Taiwan. Three days later I got the news that he had died. It took me four days to arrange my ticket. I was back in Singapore exactly seven days later. The president and prime minister of Singapore attended his funeral. It took me seven years to build a stupa for his ashes.

When I was in Taiwan after he died, I would ring the big bronze bell after the evening service before the monastery closed up for the night. The bell was at the top of a hill in the main hall. It was over two meters high, forged in Taiwan. The ringer was a ram of wood that was slung on ropes. You rang the bell 108 times in the morning to wake everyone up and 108 times in the evening. I’d chant verses between rings. One went:

Children who run away from their families
Lonely travelers
Wandering in distant lands
May they return home soon
And be reunited
With their loved ones

When I sang these verses, my heart went out to everyone wandering, everyone like me who was far from home. The rich tone of the bell reverberated over the hills in coming dark. I thought of Song Nian’s blessing. I never guessed that one day I would be back at his monastery and take over as abbot. That is where I am now.

I didn’t want to return, but people were saying Song Nian was unlucky because he didn’t have any disciples. His monastery would be closed and fall to ruins, and he would soon be forgotten. It would be as if he had never lived. So I felt I had to return. What can I say? I’m Chinese. And this too is part of the character and spirit of Chan.

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