When the Patriarchs trained their students, they generally expected them to resolve more than 300 gong’an, the reason being that the content or crucial point of every gong’an is different, as is the effect. So Chan after the Tang and Song Dynasties was called “Gong’an Chan.” In “Gong’an Chan” you resolve the Patriarchs’ gong’an one by one to attain enlightenment. If you were able to do this, then it could be said that you had penetrated the Three Barriers, and brought birth and death to an end.
The gong’an has three principle functions. For someone who has already attained enlightenment, taking up a gong’an only serves to verify his or her state of enlightenment. To investigate whether the person’s realizations are right or wrong, deep or shallow, or correct or mistaken, is the first function of a gong’an. The second function is to act as a guide or catalyst for someone on the point of attaining enlightenment. The meditation of a person close to enlightenment is like a chick ready to break out of its egg. So by giving the student a gong’an, the teacher is helping the student to break through the egg of ignorance faster and more smoothly. For practitioners at this stage, the purpose of the gong’an is to cause them to realize their true nature even faster. The third function of the gong’an is for those whose enlightenment awaits them in the more distant future, to make the students more energetic and hardworking. For a student like this, the teacher will often give him a gong’an, and not allow him to put it down, pushing him to practice with it uninterruptedly day and night. This will enable him to deeply understand the suffering of birth and death, give rise to bodhicitta and enter the teacher’s snare. Finally, the teacher brings about a thorough transformation in his student’s thinking, and the student attains enlightenment in the present moment. While practicing with the gong’an, the teacher may lay many traps in order to guide the student, allowing the student to penetrate them one by one. These traps are only a kind of skillful means, as is the gong’an. The gong’an is only a stepping-stone, a finger pointing to the moon. When you realize the true nature of reality, both the stone and the finger need to be set down.
The Wu Gong’an
A person once asked the great monk Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” Zhaozhou replied, with much certainty, “No (Wu)!” Zhaozhou was a qualified teacher who had passed through the Three Barriers. People called him “The Ancient Buddha Zhaozhou.” His knowledge of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism is beyond question. He knew that the Buddha said all sentient beings possess Buddha-nature, so why did he say dogs do not? There is, in fact, no cause for alarm in Master Zhaozhou’s resolute and definitive answer of “No!” For the past 1,000 years, this “No!” or “Wu!” has drawn countless Chan practitioners to investigate it, thereby turning it into the highest method of attaining enlightenment: The Gateless Barrier.
Zhaozhou’s “Wu!” was originally a special teaching given at a specific time, and to a specific student, because of that student’s spiritual capacity. This was the method used by the ancient Buddhas, and in Chan we call it “the sword that kills, and the knife that gives life.” This wu is extremely important, and is directly related to the achievement of the fruits of meditation practice, so successive generations of past Chan practitioners have held it up as a model.
What is “the sword that kills, and the knife that gives life?” “The sword that kills” is the thing that thoroughly kills our delusions; it cleanses us of our kleśa. “The knife that gives life” is the thing that rescues the fruits of our practice from the midst of these kleśa. For the last 1,000 years, meditators within and outside of China have used this wu to rid themselves of delusion, realize their true nature, and achieve the final goal of Buddhist practice. Even now, there are still many Chan practitioners meditating on this wu.
If you look at the actual character wu for understanding, or rely on your conceptual mind to find an answer, you will never touch on the true meaning. It is like scratching another person’s foot when your foot itches; you will never get the itching to stop. When a meditator is inquiring into wu, it leads all his or her conceptualizing and deluded mental discrimination to a dead end. At that time, it is like standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking a bottomless chasm, and suddenly someone pushes you. If you do not have this state of mind, but wish to attain enlightenment, it is impossible.
Speaking this way makes Zhaozhou sound extremely ruthless, right? Would not pushing people off a cliff into a bottomless chasm cause them to lose their lives? Of course, we should not take “losing your life” and “bottomless chasm” literally. It means to push our conceptual thinking into an impasse or dead end, to be unable to go forward or backward. Only then might our thinking undergo a complete transformation, and we find the seed of our Buddha-nature. Only then will the “bottom of the barrel fall out,” and we come to complete realization. Zhaozhou’s wu gong’an has been highly valued by Chan practitioners of the last 1,000 years, and it was not by chance.
For those of us today who want to practice with wu, who are placing our hopes of enlightenment on it, how do we practice with it? The Patriarchs spoke at length about this question; in fact, it would fill endless books. But it ultimately comes down to doubting wu with every fiber of our being. This is the “doubt” oftentimes referred to in gong’an practice. Please remember that cultivating this doubt does not mean to conceptualize discursively over this wu. Also, do not mistake this wu as meaning “to have,” or “not to have,” or to mean “nothingness.” It transcends the duality of having or not having.
So how are we to understand this wu? We need to integrate this wu into our life, fuse it and our life into a single, undivided whole, until our life is the wu and wu is our life. We need to doubt in this way. To what degree do we want to cultivate this doubt? There is an analogy that describes it this way: someone is deep-frying glutinous rice cakes on a street corner, and a dog passes by and bites into one of them. These kinds of cakes are very sticky, and this one is burning hot because it just came out of the frying pan. However, the dog cannot swallow it and cannot spit it out because the cake is stuck to its teeth. In this time between swallowing and spitting it out, what would the dog’s state of mind be? When you meditate on wu, and give rise to doubt, you need to be as motivated as this dog trying to spit out the rice cake. It is like having a red hot metal ball in your mouth. What would that feel like? Have we given rise to a degree of doubt equal to this? If you have, you can say you doubt with every fiber of your being. “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” Doubt with every bit of your strength you can muster, and besides doubting, do not give rise to a single thought. This is the way to practice.
The Origin of the gong’an
In ancient China, a gong’an originally referred to a legal case. When a doctor gave a patient a prescription, it was also called a gong’an. After a doctor treated one patient, the doctor would often take some notes. While treating another patient, he might reference these notes to draw from his experience in treating patient A to treat patient B. According to the similarities or differences in the two illnesses, the doctor would make a suitable prescription, or gong’an. In Chan, the gong’an functions in a similar way. The Chan master, according to the particular situation of the student, consults the process and result of the ancient patriarchs’ enlightenment. The teacher uses the realizations brought about by past meditators in order to give guidance to the current student’s practice.
Actually, when Chan was beginning to develop, there was no gong’an practice. It was only afterwards, when people’s natural capacity for practice began to worsen, that there was no alternative but to use the investigation of the gong’an to reach the goal of seeing one’s true nature. The “Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch” said it very clearly: “directly pointing to the heart, seeing one’s original nature and becoming a Buddha.” The method of seeing one’s original nature is a direct pointing. What is “direct pointing”? For example, someone asked the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng, “What is Buddha?” and the Patriarch replied, “The person asking is the Buddha.” The inquirer is Buddha. If the person asking has the spiritual capacity, the wisdom, if the karmic conditions have ripened, then upon hearing the Patriarch’s direct answer, he will immediately attain enlightenment. By means of the Patriarch’s “direct pointing,” timed to coincide with exactly the right time, and specifically geared for his or her capacity, the student can immediately attain enlightenment. And after the sudden realization, the student continues to practice. This is what we usually call “sudden enlightenment, gradual practice.”
This is somewhat different from practicing with a gong’an. If our spiritual capacity is of poor quality, and we are not able to attain immediate enlightenment, then before reaching enlightenment we will need to investigate the gong’an for a long time. Enlightenment itself is an event that takes place in a split second. However, the process of preparing for it is a very long one; therefore, it is called “gradual enlightenment.” After attaining “gradual enlightenment,” we have not necessarily finished our work. We need to continue practicing. The process is usually referred to as “gradual enlightenment, gradual practice.” The practice after reaching this stage of enlightenment is finally genuine practice. The practice one does before attaining this state is only a stage of exploration. It belongs to “blind practice” because it lacks insight and understanding. Watching the huatou, or the “head of the thought,” and giving rise to doubt is part of blind practice.
The Ancients said, “Big doubt, big enlightenment; small doubt, small enlightenment; no doubt, no enlightenment.” The kind of doubt we are trying to bring up is actually a doubt about one’s own life, and all its confusing circumstances. It is not doubt about the Dharma, but, in fact, comes after having full confidence and faith in the Dharma. Who am I? Where did I come from? Where will I go? Why is there birth and death? Others have reached enlightenment, why cannot I? The doubt comes in the form of questions like this that arise from deeply contemplating the truths of life. However, the doubt we are trying to produce is not only a question-by-question, minute examination of life’s mysteries. Although some people do use this approach, those people must have good spiritual capacities and deep inborn wisdom. If normal people use this kind of method, it will easily give rise to discursive, deluded thinking. They will not be able to enter a calm meditative state because the factor of vipaśyanā is prominent over the factor of śamatha. Doing this kind of practice without a strong foundation in śamatha easily leads to a scattered mind. To give rise to doubt definitely needs a foundation in śamatha, otherwise one will not be able to meditate, let alone attain enlightenment.
The great Chan Master Empty Cloud said, after bringing up this doubt, to reflect upon it carefully, to fix it in our minds and not allow it to sneak off. This approach is in fact a Chan method, and is a Buddhist technique as well. When meditating on the wu gong’an, we want to give rise to doubt regarding this wu, fix it in our minds and carefully reflection upon it. How do we carefully reflect? It is just like the words in the Heart Sutra: “When practicing the profound Perfection of Wisdom, Guanyin Bodhisattva observed the Five Aggregates to be empty.” Afterward, “Therefore, in the realization of emptiness there are no form, no feeling, perception, volition or consciousness. No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; no form, sound, smell, taste, touch or mind object; no realm of the eye, until we come to no realm of consciousness. No ignorance and also no ending of ignorance, until we come to no old age and death and do ending of old age and death. Also, there is no Truth of Suffering, of the Cause of Suffering, of the Cessation of Suffering, nor of the Path. There is no wisdom, and there is no attainment whatsoever.”
It is just like this. If one continues practicing with wu, all dualism is at last dissolved, which is to say that emptiness is realized. In our practice, we need to rest in this state of emptiness at all times, to maintain it. Once we are well practiced in this, enlightenment will be within our grasp.
So, practicing with the wu gong’an is to reflect carefully on emptiness, to observe our originally empty nature. The Ancients said not to mistake this wu as meaning “to have or not to have.” We also do not want to mistakenly think it refers to “nothingness.” It does not mean an absence of all things. Actually, it is a great unification, a great consummation and ultimately nirvana. We need to observe this wu until our thoughts are one with it, and there is no dualistic concept of a self, until this duality-lacking wu becomes a unified whole with our being. Once your practice has reached a high level, you will know the power of this wu. Everyone definitely needs to trust this, to bring up this doubt. If you do not trust, there will be no doubt. If there is no doubt, then your meditation will go nowhere.