Essentials of Practice and Enlightenment
By Master Hanshan Deqing [1546-1623]
I. How to Practice and Reach Enlightenment
causes and condition of this Great Matter, [this Buddha-nature] is intrinsically
within everyone; as such, it is already complete within you, lacking nothing.
The difficulty is that, since time without beginning, seeds of passion, deluded
thinking, emotional conceptualizations, and deep-rooted habitual tendencies have
obscured this marvelous luminosity. You cannot genuinely realize it because you
have being wallowing in remnant deluded thoughts of body, mind, and the world,
discriminating and musing [about this and that]. For these reason you have been
roaming in the cycle of birth and death [endlessly]. Yet, all Buddhas and ancestral
masters have appeared in the world using countless words and expedient means to
expound on Chan and to clarify the doctrine. Following and meeting different dispositions
[of sentient being], all of these expedient means are like tools to crush our
mind of clinging and realize that originally there is no real substantiality to
"dharmas" or [the sense of] "self."
What is commonly known
as practice means simply to accord with [whatever state] of mind you're in so
as to purify and relinquish the deluded thoughts and traces of your habit tendencies.
Exerting your efforts here is called practice. If within a single moment deluded
thinking suddenly ceases, [you will] thoroughly perceive your own mind and realize
that it is vast and open, bright and luminous-intrinsically perfect and complete.
This state, being originally pure, devoid of a single thing, is called enlightenment.
Apart from this mind, there is no such thing as cultivation or enlightenment.
The essence of your mind is like a mirror and all the traces of deluded thoughts
and clinging to conditions are defiling dust of the mind. Your conception of appearances
is this dust and your emotional consciousness is the defilement. If all the deluded
thoughts melt away, the intrinsic essence will reveal in its own accord. It's
like when the defilement is polished away, the mirror regains its clarity. It
is the same with Dharma.
However, our habit, defilement, and self-clinging
accumulated throughout eons have become solid and deep-rooted. Fortunately, through
the condition of having the guidance of a good spiritual friend, our internal
prajna as a cause can influence our being so this inherent prajna can be augmented.
Having realized that [prajna] is inherent in us, we will be able to arouse the
[Bodhi-] mind and steer our direction toward the aspiration of relinquishing [the
cyclic existence of] birth and death. This task of uprooting the roots of birth
and death accumulated through innumerable eons all at once is a subtle matter.
If you are not someone with great strength and ability brave enough to shoulder
such a burden and to cut through directly [to this matter] without the slightest
hesitation, then [this task] will be extremely difficult. An ancient one has said,
"This matter is like one person confronting ten thousand enemies." These
are not false words.
II. The Entrance to Practice and Enlightenment
speaking, in this Dharma-ending-age, there are more people who practice than people
who truly have realization. There are more people who waste their efforts than
those who derive power. Why is this? They do not exert their effort directly and
do not know the shortcut. Instead, many people merely fill their minds with past
knowledge of words and language based on what they have heard, or they measure
things by means of their emotional discriminations, or they suppress deluded thoughts,
or they dazzle themselves with visionary astonishment at their sensory gates.
These people dwell on the words of the ancient ones in their minds and take them
to be real. Furthermore, they cling to these words as their own view. Little do
they know that none of these are the least bit useful. This is what is called,
"grasping at other's understanding and clouding one's own entrance to enlightenment."
order to engage in practice, you must first sever knowledge and understanding
and single-mindedly exert all of your efforts on one thought. Have a firm conviction
in your own [true] mind that, originally it is pure and clear, without the slightest
lingering thing-it is bright and perfect and it pervades throughout the Dharmadhatu.
Intrinsically, there is no body, mind, or world, nor are there any deluded thoughts
and emotional conceptions. Right at this moment, this single thought is itself
unborn! Everything that manifests before you now are illusory and insubstantial-all
of which are reflections projected from the true mind. Work in such a manner to
crush away [all your deluded thoughts]. You should fixate [your mind] to observe
where the thoughts arise from and where they cease. If you practice like this,
no matter what kinds of deluded thoughts arise, one smash and they will all be
crushed to pieces. All will dissolve and vanish away. You should never follow
or perpetuate deluded thoughts. Master Yongjia has admonished, "One must
sever the mind [that desires] continuation." This is because the illusory
mind of delusion is originally rootless. You should never take a deluded thought
as real and try to hold on to it in your heart. As soon as it arises notice it
right away. Once you notice it, it will vanish. Never try to suppress thoughts
but allow thoughts to be as you watch a gourd floating on water.
your body, mind, and world and simply bring forth this single thought [of method]
like a sword piercing through the sky. Whether a Buddha or a Mara appears, just
cut them off like a snarl of entangled silk thread. Use all your effort and strength
patiently to push your mind to the very end. What is known as, "a mind that
maintains the correct thought of true suchness" means that a correct thought
is no-thought. If you are able to contemplate no-thought, you're already steering
toward the wisdom of the Buddhas.
Those who practice and have recently generated
the [Bodhi-] mind should have the conviction in the teaching of mind-only. The
Buddha has said, "The three realms are mind-only and the myriad dharmas are
mere consciousness." All Buddhadharma is only further exposition on these
two lines so everyone will be able to distinguish, understand, and generate faith
in this reality. The passages of the sacred and the profane, are only paths of
delusion and awakening with in your own mind. Besides the mind, all karmas of
virtue and vice are unobtainable. Your [intrinsic] nature is wondrous. It is something
natural and spontaneous, not something you can "enlighten to" [since
you naturally have it]. As such, what is there to be deluded about? Delusion only
refers to your unawareness that your mind intrinsically has not a single thing,
and that the body, mind, and world are originally empty. Because you're obstructed,
therefore, there is delusion. You have always taken the deluded thinking mind,
that constantly rises and passes away, as real. For this reason, you have also
take the various illusory transformations in and appearances of the realms of
the six sense objects as real. If today you are willing to arouse your mind and
steer away from [this direction] and take the upper road, then you should cast
aside all of your previous views and understanding. Here not a single iota of
intellectual knowledge or cleverness will be useful. You must only see through
the body, mind, and world that appear before you and realize that they are all
insubstantial. Like imaginary reflections-they are the same as images in the mirror
or moon reflected in the water. Hear all sounds and voices like wind passing through
the forest; perceive all objects as drifting clouds in the sky. Everything is
in a constant state of flux; everything is illusory and insubstantial. Not only
is the external world like this, but your own deluded thoughts, emotional discriminations
of the mind, and all the seeds of passion, habit tendencies, as well as all vexations
are also groundless and insubstantial.
If you can thus engage in contemplation,
then whenever a thought arises, you should find its source. Never haphazardly
allow it to pass you by [without seeing through it]. Do not be deceived by it!
If this is how you work, then you will be doing some genuine practice. Do not
try to gather up some abstract and intellectual view on it or try to fabricate
some cleaver understanding about it. Still, to even speak about practice is really
like the last alternative. For example, in the use of weapons, they are really
not auspicious objects! But they are used as the last alternative [in battles].
The ancient ones spoke about investigating Chan and bringing forth the huatou.
These, too are last alternatives. Even though there are innumerable gong ans,
only by using the huatou, "Who is reciting the Buddha's name?" can you
derive power from it easily enough amidst vexing situations. Even though you can
easily derive power from it, [this huatou] is merely a [broken] tile for knocking
down doors. Eventually you will have to throw it away. Still, you must use it
for now. If you plan to use a huatou for your practice, you must have faith, unwavering
firmness, and perseverance. You must not have the least bit of hesitation and
uncertainty. Also, you must not be one way today and another tomorrow. You should
not be concerned that you will not be enlightened, nor should you feel that this
huatou is not profound enough! All of these thoughts are just hindrances. I must
speak of these now so that you will not give rise to doubt and suspicion when
you are confronted [by difficulties].
If you can derive power from your power,
the external world will not influence you. However, internally your mind may give
rise to much frantic distraction for [seemingly] no reason. Sometimes desire and
lust well up; sometime restlessness comes in. Numerous hindrances can arise inside
of you making you feel mentally and physically exhausted. You will not know what
to do. These are all of the karmic propensities that have been stored inside your
eighth-consciousness for innumerable eons. Today, due to your energetic practice,
they will all come out. At that critical point, you must be able to discern and
see through them then pass beyond [these obstacles]. Never be controlled and manipulated
by them and most of all, never take them to be real. At that point, you must refresh
your spirit and arouse your courage and diligence then bring forth this existential
concern with your investigation of the huatou. Fix your attention at the point
from which thoughts arise and continuously push forward on and on and ask, "Originally
there is nothing inside of me, so where does the [obstacle] come from? What is
it?" You must be determined to find out the bottom of this matter. Pressing
on just like this, killing every [delusion in sight,] without leaving a single
trace until even the demons and spirits burst out in tears. If you can practice
like this, naturally good news will come to you.
If you can smash through a
single thought, then all deluded thinking will suddenly be stripped off. You will
feel like a flower in the sky that casts no shadows, or like a bright sun emitting
boundless light, or like a limpid pond, transparent and clear. After experiencing
this, there will be immeasurable feelings of light and ease, as well as a sense
of liberation. This is a sign of deriving power from practice for beginners. There
is nothing marvelous or extraordinary about it. Do not rejoice and wallow in this
ravishing experience. If you do, then the Mara of Joy will possess you and you
will have gained another kind of obstruction! Concealed within the storehouse
consciousness are your deep-rooted habit tendencies and seeds of passion. If your
practice of huatou is not taking effect, or that you're unable to contemplate
and illuminate your mind, or you're simply incapable of applying yourself to the
practice, then you should practice prostrations, read the sutras, and engage yourself
in repentance. You may also recite mantras to receive the secret seal of the Buddhas;
it will alleviate your hindrances. This is because all the secret mantras are
the seals of the Buddhas' diamond mind. When you use them, it is like holding
an indestructible diamond thunderbolt that can shatter everything. Whatever comes
close to it will be demolished into dust motes. The essence of all the esoteric
teachings of all Buddhas and ancestral masters are contained in the mantras. Therefore,
it is said that, "All Tathagatas in the ten directions attained unsurpassable
and correct perfect enlightenment through such mantras." Even though the
Buddhas have said this clearly, the lineage ancestral masters, fearing that these
words may be misunderstood, have kept this knowledge a secret and do not use this
method. Nevertheless, in order to derive power from using a mantra, you must practice
it regularly after a long and extensive period of time. Yet, even so, you should
never anticipate or seek miraculous response from using it.
There are those who are first enlightened then
engage in practice, and there are others who first practice and then get enlightened.
Also, there is a difference with understanding-enlightenment and actualized-enlightenment.
who understand their minds after hearing the spoken teaching from the Buddhas
and ancestral masters reach an understanding-enlightenment. In most cases, these
people fall into views and knowledge. Confronted by all circumstances, they will
not be able to make use of what they have come to know. Their minds and the external
objects are in opposition. There is neither oneness nor harmony. Thus, they face
obstacles all the time. [What they have realized] is called "prajna in semblance"
and is not from genuine practice.
Actualized-enlightenment results from solid
and sincere practice when you reach an impasse where the mountains are barren
and waters are exhausted. Suddenly, [at the moment when] a thought stops, you
will thoroughly perceive your own mind. At this time, you will feel as though
you have personally seen your own father at a crossroad-there is no doubt about
it! It is like you yourself drinking water. Whether the water is cold or warm,
only you will know, and it is not something you can describe to others. This is
genuine practice and true enlightenment. Having had such experience, you can integrate
it with all situations of life and purify, as well as relinquish, the karma that
has already manifested, the stream of your consciousness, your deluded thinking
and emotional conceptions until everything fuses into the One True [enlightened]
Mind. This is actualized-enlightenment.
This state of actualized-enlightenment
can be further divided into shallow and profound realizations. If you exert your
efforts at the root [of your existence], smashing away the cave of the eighth
consciousness, and instantaneously overturn the den of fundamental ignorance,
with one leap directly enter [the realm of enlightenment], then there is nothing
further for you to learn. This is having supreme karmic roots. Your actualization
will be profound indeed. The depth of actualization for those who practice gradually,
[on the other hand,] will be shallow.
The worst thing is to be self-satisfied
with little [experiences]. Never allow yourself to fall into the dazzling experiences
that arise from your sensory gates. Why? Because your eighth consciousness has
not yet been crushed, so whatever you experience or do will be [conditioned] by
your [deluded] consciousness and senses. If you think that this [consciousness]
is real, then it is like mistaking a thief to be your own son! The ancient one
has said, "Those who engage in practice do not know what is real because
until now they have taken their consciousness [to be true]; what a fool takes
to be his original face is actually the fundamental cause of birth and death."
This is the barrier that you must pass through.
So called sudden enlightenment
and gradual practice refers to one who has experienced a thorough enlightenment
but, still has remnant habit tendencies that are not instantaneously purified.
For these people, they must, implement the principles from their enlightenment
that they have realized to face all circumstances of life and, bring forth the
strength from their contemplation and illumination to experience their minds in
difficult situations. When one portion of their experience in such situations
accords[with the enlightened way], they will have actualized one portion of the
Dharmakaya. When they dissolve away one portion of their deluded thinking, that
is the degree to which their fundamental wisdom manifests. What is critical is
seamless continuity in the practice. [For these people,] it is much more effective
when they practice in different real life situations.
Comments by the Translator
Deqing [1546-1623] is considered one of the four most eminent Buddhist monks in
the late Ming Dynasty [1368-1644] partly for his social-political interactions
with Ming court, exegesis of Buddhist texts, and most importantly, for his Chan
practice. In this short introduction, I will only comment briefly on the last
aspects on his contributions to Chinese Buddhism.
Even at age seven, Hanshan
had existential concerns about life and death. These thoughts had led him to leave
the household life and pursue a life of Buddhist training already at age nine.
At the age of 19, he was ordained as a Buddhist monk.
In all of the history
of Chan, there is not a single master that has written in such detail about his
own practice and experiences, especially in describing the enlightened state of
mind. According to a compiled record, The Dream Roaming of Great Master Hanshan,
he had numerous and extraordinary enlightenment experiences. His first experience
was during a Dharma lecture when he heard the profound teaching on the interpenetration
of phenomena as taught in the Avatamsaka Sutra and the treatise, The Ten Wondrous
Gates. He experienced another deep enlightenment experience sometime later when
at Mt. Wu Tai he read the treatise by an early Chinese Madhyamika monk called
Things do not Move. According to the record, Hanshan served as proofreader of
the Book of Chao, the source of Things do not Move. Hanshan came across the stories
of a Bramacharin who had left home in his youth and returned when he was white-haired.
When people saw him, the neighbors asked, "Is that man [whom we know] still
living today?" The Bramacharin replied, "I look like that man of the
past, but I am not he." On reading this story ,, Hanshan suddenly understood
that all things do not come and go. When he got up from his seat and walked around,
he did not see things in motion. When he opened the window blind, suddenly a wind
blew the trees in the yard, and the leaves flew all over the sky. However, he
did not see any signs of motion. When he went to urinate, he still did not see
signs of flowing. He understood what the text spoke of as, "Streams and rivers
run into the ocean and yet there is no flowing." At this time, Hanshan shattered
all doubt and existential concerns about birth and death. He wrote the following
Life and death, day and night;
Water flows and flowers fall.
today, I know that
My nose points downward!
The next day when another great
Chan Master, Miaofeng, saw him, he knew that Hanshan was different and asked him
whether anything has happened. Hanshan replied, " Last night I saw two iron
oxen fighting with each other next to the river bank. They both fell in the river.
Since then, I have not heard anything about them." Miaofeng rejoiced and
Still, on another occasion, after a meal, Hanshan walked
in the mountains and experienced a profound state of samadhi while standing. In
the record, it described that suddenly he lost all consciousness of his body and
mind. He experienced everything, the whole universe, as contained in a great perfect
mirror-like mind. Mountains and rivers all reflected in it. After he came out
of that experience, he wrote the following verse:
In an instant of thought,
this chaotic mind is put to rest.
Internally and externally, the sense faculties
Became empty and clear.
Overturning the body-emptiness is now
The myriad forms and appearances arise and extinguish
These are just some of his experiences recorded in The Dream Roaming
of Great Master Hanshan. The instructions on practice that I have translated here
are from the second fascicle of this record. The original text had no titles but
were letters written to a lay practitioner on Chan practice.
Hanshan was also
a prolific writer whose published works ranging from commentaries on Buddhist
sutras and treatises, to secular poems, reached the length of 8,300 pages. In
The Dream Roaming of Great Master Hanshan, there are 55 chuan, or books, covering
over 3,000 pages. His commentaries on the Supplement to the Tripitaka consist
of 119 chuan, covering over 1,200 large pages printed on both sides. Like other
Ming Dynasty Buddhist monks, he also wrote many commentaries on non-Buddhist works
such as Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi, as well as other Taoist and Confucian text.
contributions to Chinese Buddhism lies in his exemplary personality and his striving
toward liberation, especially in an age of mismanaged government, corruption,
internal oppression, and the external vulnerability of the Ming Dynasty. Although
his Buddhist commentary is not particularly original, the strength of his writing
comes from his active approach in reviving and popularizing Buddhism, and in the
way he responded to the times in which he lived.
From all that we know of
Hanshan, we can conclude that he was a great master who gave equal weight to doctrine
and practice, as well as to the revival of Chinese Buddhism.
note: To know more about Han'san's life, you can download his autobiography at