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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bodhidharma: Entrances and Practices

“Probably you all know that Bodhidharma, the monk who brought dhyana from India to China (dhyana came to be known as Chan in China, Zen in japanese, Seon in Korea, Thien in Vietnam) in the last half of the fifth century, is reputed to have described Chan as:

A direct transmission outside the Scriptures,
Not dependent on words and letters,
Directly pointing to one's own mind
Seeing into one's own nature.

So what is this Chan that we are trying to practice, and how is it practised?

Let us take a further look back in time and see how Bodhidharma saw this. Bodhidharma is reputed to be the first carrier of the Zen transmission from India to China. I say reputed to be since although historians seem to agree that he actually existed, they have little hard evidence on how and what he actually taught. The verse earlier about direct transmission is ascribed to him, and also a teaching on the "Two Entrances and the Four Practices". This is quite an important text but you may not have heard of it. Master Sheng-yen has written an introductory booklet on Chan practice entitled "In the Spirit of Chan" and in it he uses this text as the central document.

Lets look at these Entrances and Practices.

Bodhidharma spoke of there being two entries to realising your own nature. The first is Entry through Principle, in essence it is just to do it, and he describes it like this:

"Leaving behind the false, return to the true;
make no distinction between self and others.
In contemplation one's mind should be stable and unmoving like a wall."

This may well be a direct path to Enlightenment but most of us cannot manage it. We cannot manage to set our minds unmoving like a wall, and to stop making distinctions between self and others, and so on.

So he also spoke of Entry through Practice, and he described four methods. Shifu makes the point that these four are of progressive difficulty.

The first practice is of "accepting karmic retribution". Karma is a difficult concept for many of us, particularly if it involves discussion of past lives. Let us just look at it in a simple, straightforward way. Actions in the past have consequences in the present. Our actions in the past have effects which may be maturing now. Can we accept what the present delivers to us as being the result of past causes and conditions which are maturing in this present moment, without "picking and choosing" and wishing that it were otherwise? Can we notice our own tendencies not to want to accept the retribution of karma on our present lives?

The second practice is "adapting to conditions". At first glance this sounds as if it contradicts the first one. Firstly we are told to accept karmic retribution, but then we are told to adapt to the conditions that result from it. It seems we are trying to wriggle out of it! But whatever the conditions that we encounter as a result of karmic retribution, whether favourable or otherwise, it is up to us not to reject them but to make the best of them, to use them skilfully. The message of this second method is that as we accept our karmic retribution, whether unpleasant or favourable, there is no point in getting upset or excited. There is no point in getting upset when we receive a painful karmic retribution, it is only our just deserts. Similarly when something good happens there is no need to feel that something special has happened, it is only happening as a result of our past good actions and so it is natural that it should happen. Just as acceptance of karmic retribution requires non-aversion, it also requires non-grasping when the present circumstances are good. For better or for worse that is what is happening, and we need to live our lives skilfully accepting the consequences of past actions, without aversion or attachment, and adapting ourselves to the resultant present circumstances.

The first method seems to emphasize acceptance of our karmic retribution, and the second our adaptation to (but not avoidance of) the circumstances that result from karma.

The third practice is "No-Seeking". This is a higher and more difficult practice. Usually our activities are motivated by thoughts of gain for ourselves. This practice requires that we consistently engage in useful activity, and yet without thought as to our own gain. To truly practice this requires a realization of no-self. To begin practice we need an attitude of non-seeking, being willing to engage usefully with the world, but without concern as to whether the use is to ourselves or to others.

As we go through these three practices we can see a progression in the attitude required. Firstly we need an attitude of being willing and able to accept the results of our past actions maturing in the present. Secondly we must have an attitude of flexibility, being willing to adapt to and flow with these differing circumstances that arise, making the best of them, not being attached to fixed ideas of the outcome that we seek. Thirdly our attitude of non-seeking means that we do not have any attachment to any outcome at all, whether for ourselves or for others, and yet we do act.

The fourth method is "Union with the Dharma". It is a basic tenet of Buddhism that all phenomena are empty and impermanent. In this method we try to personally experience this impermanence and selflessness through direct contemplation of emptiness. This is the highest practice and allows us to reach the point of entry though principle, the first and rather difficult entrance of which Bodhidharma spoke.

It is interesting that overtly there is no recommendation to sit in meditation in the first three practices, and yet we also hear of Bodhidharma sitting in meditation for nine years facing the wall, and that he taught a new form of meditation which was called wall-gazing. As far as I can establish Bodhidharma's own teaching on this "wall-gazing" has not survived, but seeing how the teaching was hailed by his descendants as a new method it probably referred not just to the physical posture facing the wall, but also to the mental attitude and method, indeed having one's mind "stable and unmoving, like a wall" as mentioned in the first entrance through principle.

So right from the beginning of Chan, and of course going back further to the time of the Buddha, we see this balancing of meditation and other practices.”…the extended text is available at


Really famous Zen Masters, or "Watch it, whether you answer correctly or incorrectly to Zen master's question, you still get 30 whacks from the incense stick. Ouch!!!"

Mazu Daoyi, "Daji" (709-88) was an eighth generation Zen master and the second most famous behind Huineng. Mazu was the first Zen teacher acknowledged to use his staff to jolt his students into awakening. Here's a couple of lines about Mazu:

A monk asked, "What is the essential meaning of Buddhism?"

Mazu said, "What is the meaning of this moment?"


'Just sitting' can be really hard on the body. In order to loosen up the hips and the knees, and to sit in a vertical and relaxed posture, Shandora Page recommends you try out a Yoga class. Shandora is a certified and insured Ashtanga Yoga teacher who has a background in classical dance training. You can reach her at Breathing Easy Yoga. She teaches Flow, Vinyasa, Restorative and Yin Yoga out of the Comox Valley Kung Fu Academy, #3-1491 McPhee Ave. in Courtenay. Contact at 250-338-2802 or email Shandora at


Also check out
Master Cheng Yen in Facebook;
and the Western Chan Fellowship at

Unless you are willing to camp, this week may be the last opportunity to register for the upcoming Chan retreat. There are 18 people booked! Call Adrian at 250 898 8201, email or Google for information on the three day Chan (Zen) retreat Sept 10, 11, 12. at

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