Ch'an an interview with Shih Ying-Fa

 How to Meditate, Interview – April 16, 2010


How to Meditate the Ch'an Method

HTM: What meditation type is it that you practice?

Shih Ying-Fa: Our tradition is Ch'an, which I'm sure you are aware is the precursor of Japanese Zen. For all intents and purposes, the terms Ch'an and Zen are interchangeable as I'm sure you're also aware.

HTM: I am interested to hear about Ch'an meditation. What is it that attracted you to meditation to begin with?

Shih Ying-Fa: In the beginning, what attracted me to meditation was the sense of peacefulness that seemed to be associated with it. At the time I had quit my high-paying, highly stressful job in order to bring more peace and balance into my life, qualities that I was sorely lacking in those days. I quickly found that meditative practice was indeed peaceful, but after a time I began to notice that a sense of awareness was steadily growing along with that peacefulness. The awareness grew to the point where I instinctively sought out a Buddhist teacher, and upon finding that teacher my Buddhist "career" began.

HTM: Can you further describe what you are calling "a sense of awareness" that steadily grew as you continued to meditate?

Shih Ying-Fa: Before I began meditating, my awareness was mostly limited to my limited thoughts and opinions of things. Although I was immersed in the world, my perception of that world was skewed by my own limited, ego-based views. After meditating for a while, I began to have more of a sense of things as they are, not as I would have preferred them to be. I also began to feel, intuitively, that I was somehow connected to life, that there was a dynamic relationship between my so-called self and my environment. I would describe it a little bit differently today, of course, but this is how it felt at first.

HTM: I would like to hear more about what you refer to as the "dynamic relationship between your so-called self and your environment". Perhaps you could tell me how you would describe this today. I would like to hear about how your current meditation practices are structured, and what your experiences are like.

Shih Ying-Fa: This is not an answer to your latest question, but rather a commentary on it. In the Wumenkuan, a famous collection of gong-ans (J. koans), Ch'an Master Wu-Men commented on case #4, "Why does the Western Barbarian have no beard?" The "Western Barbarian" is Bodhidharma, of course. Master Wu-Men's initial commentary went as follows: Practice must be true practice. Awakening must be true awakening. Once you see the Western Barbarian's face intimately, first-hand, you have it at last. But when you explain this experience, you immediately fall into dualism.

With respect, I would rather not get into "what my experiences are like" because I could no more convey that through words than I could cause a blind person to see the Grand Canyon by simply describing it. In doing so, all I would be accomplishing is what I call "poisoning the well" for meditative practitioners. These days, far too many people are concerned with collecting their own experiences and the experiences of others and calling it Awareness rather than cultivating Awareness itself. I would prefer to encourage people to "turn the light inward" and see for themselves than to clutter their minds with second-hand tales.

The same reasoning applies to your question regarding the so-called "structure" of my meditation. Structure is important in the beginning and in later formal meditative practice, but one must allow so-called "formal practice" and so-called "informal practice" to integrate into Awareness, which has no sense of either "formal" or "informal."

I hope that you will not perceive me as being uncooperative. I must simply be true to the practice, the Dharma, and to those who are working diligently to cultivate Awareness by not handing them yet another stumbling block to true Awakening. I pray for your understanding. Be well.

HTM: I am not the least offended by your response. I understand. There is a balance it seems between encouraging others (by both example and stories) and "poisoning the well" as you put it. A blind person will never see the Grand Canyon, whereas taking up meditation does promise, even by degrees relaxation, healing, and even transcendence or contact with the divine within.

This is my perspective. I think a blind person who could listen to the story of the Grand Canyon would appreciate it. Perhaps you can look at what exactly got you started on your own quest- hints, stories, images, etc. With this in mind, what is the length that you have gone or feel willing to go along the lines of encouragement? What of this practice are you willing to speak about?

Shih Ying-Fa: As a Ch'an teacher I am much more about the process of internal inquiry than pretty stories. I prefer to speak on things such as effort, attitude, traps and pitfalls, the qualities of one who engages in deep meditative inquiry, etc.....in other words, the practical, nuts-and-bolts realities of practice and realization.

From the Ch'an perspective, this practice promises absolutely nothing! It is a path to realization that one must walk alone, albeit with the occasional assistance of teachers, Dharma friends and the tradition itself. To promise something is to provide the ego-mind with more fuel for delusion.

I always encourage my students, but at the same time I promise them nothing and insist that they do not engage in looking FOR anything. I do encourage them to have faith in their inherent enlightened nature, but this is something that they must ultimately realize for themselves. We do not deal in imagery; we deal in Mind. The occasional image or analogy is fine, but these are just pretty pictures in the end, pictures that must be released as soon as they are conjured up.

What got me started on my quest? Suffering. What lengths will I go to encourage a practitioner? It depends on the needs of the practitioner at that moment. Skillful means does not lend itself to formulas.