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Chan Practice Through the Heart of a Dharma Heir

Chan Master Sheng Yen meditating by the lake at the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in New York. Image courtesy of Dharma Drum Cultural Center

Many people have a romantic notion of what it must be like to be a Dharma heir. It reminds me of a Chan story about a young monk whose master had confirmed that he had seen his true nature. When the other monks asked him how he felt, the young monk replied, “As miserable as ever.” My own story starts long before I became a Dharma heir.

I remember the day that Master Sheng Yen conferred inka upon me. It happened at the end of a retreat, when I found myself listening to his closing remarks and I was surprised to hear his announcement to those in attendance that he would confer inka upon me. I had no idea what his acknowledgement meant, but I sensed a turning in the direction of my life; a feeling that it would become increasingly devoted to studying and presenting the Dharma. This is what Master Sheng Yen transmitted from his heart to me.

I knew I would be expected to lead, guide, and inspire. It was not a matter of whether or not I could, but rather a matter of acceptance of the steps I would have to take to fulfill this newfound purpose in my life.

There is a story that Master Sheng Yen would tell of his coming to America. When his master, Dong Chu, inquired of him why he was going to America, Master Sheng Yen stated that he was going to teach the Dharma.

Master Dong Chu bellowed at him, “You are going to teach the Dharma?”

Master Sheng Yen replied, “Shifu, I am only playing that I am teaching.” Master Sheng Yen still felt his master’s eyes on him: “Don’t worry Shifu, I won’t let you down.”

Master Dong Chu responded even louder: “Let me down? You worry about letting yourself down!”

The story rings true to this day. First of all, no one can teach the Dharma. In our Chan practice we follow the Buddhas in study, but words cannot deliver us, or any sentient being. We must safeguard against believing that we can deliver sentient beings with mere words. Our practice is to exhort others into practice by following the essentials of Chan practice and the Buddhadharma. All Dharma heirs must realize that we set the compass points to follow, yet have no expectation of a direction or place of arrival. The skill of a Dharma heir is assisting practitioners in following a “true heading.” This true heading is the right view and sincere uninterrupted practice. It is the uninterrupted practice that is heavily emphasized by ancient masters such as Boshan, Lin Chi, Han Shan, and Ta Hui. Uninterrupted practice is the principle of having constant awareness of all that is arising in the mind, in addition to using wisdom to perceive that all that arises in accordance with causes and conditions. Contemporary masters Hsu Yun and Sheng Yen carry on this exhortation.

Thus, this is why Master Sheng Yen told his master that he would only play at teaching.

There is a story about an old master who tells a young monk that he has nothing to teach him. The young monk was extremely perplexed and stunned by his master’s  declaration.

“But Shifu, ah . . . well . . .” the young monk started hesitantly as he scratched his head. “If you do not have anything to teach me, why do I learn from you?” He finally asked, wide-eyed and expectant.

The master replied firmly: “You learn from me until you realize that I have nothing to teach you.”

The final lesson Shifu learned from Master Dong Chu was obtained soon before Shifu’s departure. Master Dong Chu was already established and had his own group to watch over. On the other hand, Master Sheng Yen was embarking on a great mission to bring Chan to the West. Master Dongchu’s admonition was giving Master Sheng Yen the true heading—that is, using the right view that Dharma cannot be taught, only realized and also that the sincerity of practicing the Dharma stems from uninterrupted practice.

It is this true heading that Master Sheng Yen emphasized to me in my Dharma transmission ceremony, which was attended by three people—no pomp or circumstance. The intent of the ceremony is partially the conferral of the Dharma transmission, but more so the understanding that your life is dedicated to the deliverance of sentient beings. There is no need for the master to inquire from the heir whether he is willing to devote his life in this manner, it is simply understood; otherwise the practitioner would not be an heir.

I was uncertain of how I would be accepted as a Western Dharma heir, so I simply decided to practice and present the Dharma with my heart, regardless of how I may be viewed.

The motivation of a practitioner should be the fulfillment of the bodhisattva’s vow. Master Sheng Yen said, “To vow to deliver others before oneself is the initial generation of the Bodhi heart of a Bodhisattva.” We use this vow to derive wisdom from our innate wisdom. Ultimately, this wisdom becomes so clear that the notion of wisdom itself is forgotten. This is transcendent wisdom, which produces unbridled compassion toward all sentient beings.

I have learned that each Dharma heir must develop his or her own style of practicing and presenting the Dharma. We use expedient means to present the Dharma and the more we study, the more doorways we are able to offer for other practitioners to step through.

Through my experiences as a Dharma heir, I have learned to set aside the part of me that sought universal acceptance. Instead I follow the words of Lin Chi, who said: “If a master is accepted everywhere then he is not working properly.”

A Dharma heir may say things that make others feel uncomfortable, or perhaps even rejected at times. When a student says, “I do not understand,” and the teacher replies, “You will never understand,” this is only a reflection of the intransient nature of phenomena, which includes the practitioner. There is no you to understand.

Without this release of the illusory self, the best a practitioner can hope for is becoming a better citizen. For such a practitioner this is no liberation, but we must eschew liberation for the mind of pratityasamutpada (Skt. dependent origination); causes and conditions never fail. This is the Buddha mind. Keeping this proper practice of recognizing, moment to moment, that causes and conditions never fail brings the mind perfectly in accord with the Buddha mind. The Buddha mind is in the present moment, beyond this mind there is no other.

To clarify this practice for practitioners and to maintain this practice is the sole purpose of a Dharma heir.

Master Lin Chi once said: “The true and proper man of the way from moment to moment never permits any interruption of his mind.”

This is what the Dharma heir presents: to first alleviate the suffering of the practitioner, and to guide the practitioner along this true heading of the practice. None of this has anything to do with the Dharma heir, who is always busy doing nothing.

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Riverside Chan Meditation Group

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