Chan and the Eightfold Path
- By Chuan Zhi
- Nov 20
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In order to prepare ourselves for meditation, we must first begin to put our lives in order and act in accordance with what is right and good, both for us and for others. It is no simple task, for it requires that we act caringly instead of selfishly. It's not what we do that's as important as the motivations behind what we do. It's not whatwhy we think what we think that needs to be explored. It's not what we do to earn a living, but the attitude we take toward our job and our responsibilities that counts the most.
Chinese-style brush on rice paper illustrations by Fa Ming Shakya of Romania
The fountain of beauty is the heart. If virtue accompanies beauty it is the heart's paradise; if vice be associated with it, it is the soul's purgatory. - It is the wise man's bonfire, and the fool's furnace!"
Chan, or Zen, in it's strictest sense, is a transliteration of the Sanskrit term Dhyana, meaning, simply, meditation. We say, "Chan Buddhism" and assume that all we mean by it is a specific way of meditating and that if we meditate in that way in a Buddhist setting we are Chan Buddhists.
But the Chan school of Mahayana Buddhism as it was founded in South China was less about meditation than it was about the path toward transcendence, a path that would guide a person out of the world of pain and turmoil into the peace, tranquility, and joy of the Buddha's Refuge.
Meditation, however, without a broad basis in ethics and spirituality, becomes no more than a mental exercise. If a person makes 'success in meditation' the goal, and if he accomplishes this goal, what has he accomplished? He has perhaps found a way to calm himself when he is agitated; or he has acquired the ability to tolerate people and events in his surroundings. But there is a difference between tolerating and accepting, just as there is a difference between calming oneself and not becoming agitated in the first place. And that difference lies not in the Chan part of the equation, but in the Buddhist part. Meditation is the last step of the Eightfold Path, one that we can't reach by jumping over the first seven steps.
In order to prepare ourselves for meditation, we must first begin to put our lives in order and act in accordance with what is right and good, both for us and for others. It is no simple task, for it requires that we act caringly instead of selfishly. It's not what we do that's as important as the motivations behind what we do. It's not what we think, but why we think what we think that needs to be explored. It's not what we do to earn a living, but the attitude we take toward our job and our responsibilities that counts the most.
In short, the first seven steps of the Eightfold path require that we look deeply into things rather than act and react mindlessly and selfishly.
The first seven steps were presented by the Buddha in a specific order: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech,Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, and Right Mindfulness.
They were not formulated as tools for us to judge other people, but as tools for us to fix our own lives, just as we might use tools to fix a clogged drain or a car that won't start.
Let's briefly look at each step of the Eightfold Path and see how we might use them to help us along on our spiritual journey.
1) Right Understanding
It is the same with understanding as with eyes; to a certain size and make just so much light is necessary, and no more. Whatever is beyond brings darkness and confusion."
We begin with Right Understanding -- but what is it that needs to be understood correctly?
Recently a member of our sangha called me to discuss a problem he was having with his in-laws, with whom he had been living for several months.
Knowing that he was a Buddhist, they enjoyed flaunting their Christianity to spite him, he told me. Every Christian holiday offered an opportunity for them to do this. At Christmas time, excessive decorations would adorn the walls and ceilings and thousands of lights would be hung on the outside trees and eves of the house. Easter would be similar, with bunnies hanging from the ceilings, and numerous Easter posters and ornaments would replace the usual artwork hanging on the walls. He explained that they were oblivious to Buddhist Holidays but that every time a Christian holiday came around, going into the house was like walking onto a set on a stage: it was an altered reality.
This was a perfect opportunity to discuss Right understanding. His problem wasn't really with his in-laws but with the way he was responding to their actions.
"Every day is a holiday to a Buddhist." I told him. "Every day is a day to celebrate life. And any celebration of life is wonderful, regardless of what religion it's associated with."
I told him he had a wonderful opportunity to learn about these Christian holidays and to demonstrate the quality of his own religion by showing his understanding and loving acceptance of theirs.
Right Understanding means paying attention to our own understanding of things and not worrying about other people's conduct. Before we pass judgment on others, we should consider who it is who is doing the judging, and if, indeed, that judging is justified.
Right Understanding means that we work to understand things from other people's perspectives. We don't quickly judge or form an opinion until we've looked at things from as many perspectives as we can. This inquiring process, we quickly discover, leaves us with the realization that there are often so many ways to look at things that we can't possibly know them all -- and that any opinion we may form might easily be wrong because we have overlooked something.
2) Right Thought or Purpose
If a man speaks or acts with pure thought, happiness follows him like a shadow that never leaves him."
I had not heard from a woman to whom I had given Buddhist precepts many years ago until just recently. She seemed a little embarrassed that she had not stayed in touch but she said she needed my help.
"I have four children and a husband who works all day and often into the night in order to make enough money for us to get by. My youngest child is two years old and my oldest is 13. I have tried to be a good Buddhist, but I feel that my life is not my own. I'm more like a robot than a human ... feed the kids, diaper the baby, shuttle the children to school, clean their rooms, do the laundry, clean the kitchen... Every day is like this and I'm exhausted by the end of it. I just don't seem to have time for Chan. I keep telling myself that when the kids are all grown and out of the house I'll have time for spiritual work again ... but by then I'll be over 60 years old! I'm on edge all the time because of all this responsibility and angry that I can't have my old life back. When my husband is home we fight and when my kids are home we yell at each other. I just don't know what to do. Something has to give."
She was close to tears when she told me this - I knew she wanted to change things but didn't know how. She wanted a Buddhist solution.
"The second step on the Eightfold Path" I told her, "is Right Thought or Purpose. This means that we keep our eye on our spiritual goal, even in the activities of our daily lives, regardless of how hectic they may be. Our duty is to care for the needs of our children, and treat others respectfully and kindly. When we loose track of our spiritual purpose it becomes nearly impossible to maintain the level of awareness needed to do that, because we have forgotten that we are spiritual beings. The result is that we deny ourselves our own humanity as well as those around us. We become unhappy, we get 'stressed out' -- we plummet into the depths of samsara. "
I continued to explain to her that we don't need to go somewhere to practice Chan. The practice is inside us in the midst of whatever we're doing. The problem arises when we forget that. A screaming child distracts our attention, or a clothes-washer buzzer startles us, and afterwards we forget to return attention to our goal - which is enlightenment.
I explained to her that she is in the perfect situation to practice Chan. Running a home and taking care of children offers a wonderful opportunity to practice.
"How much of your time do you spend doing repetitive tasks?" I asked her.
She thought a moment then said that most of the things she did during the day were repetitive: cooking, cleaning, driving, diapering.
"Then turn each of those activities into a Chan practice. Keep that inner eye open all the time and when you get distracted by something, like a thought, or a yell from your kids, attend to the need, then return attention to your Chan practice. Before long you'll be doing it automatically, you'll be much happier and things wont bother you so much."
I gave her the ancient practice that disassociates the ego from our sensory perceptions and soon allows us to attain clear sight of our own Buddha-Nature: "neti neti!" Not this! Not this! We hold this juxtaposed interpretation of our sensory experiences in our mind night and day, severing our bonds with the material world while still existing in it. While washing dishes we repeat to ourselves "Not this! Not this!" While washing our hands: "Not this! Not this!" While rinsing out the bathtub "Not this! Not this!" We are not doing this in the sense of frustration or of anger -- or humor -- but in the sense of denying to ourselves a level of reality to the action or event. Eventually, our doing becomes only what it is in and of itself. We approach the nature of our actions rather than our mental and emotional responses to them.
Soon all those things that would have made us unhappy before become as inconsequential to our happiness as motes of dust floating through the air.
3) Right Speech
Nothing is more silly than the pleasure some people take in 'speaking their minds.' A man of this make will say a rude thing, for the mere pleasure of saying it, when an opposite behavior, full as innocent, might have preserved his friend, or made his fortune."
For those of us who interact with people a great deal, Right Speech offers an excellent opportunity to further our spiritual development. The best way to remind ourselves to attend to this important step is to recall the Buddhist tenet "Do No Harm" and to remember that when we speak it is like ringing a bell: what we say can not be retracted just as we can not un-ring a bell.
Speech is not one-sided either. The words we speak are only symbols for meanings. Words, themselves, have no meanings; it is the symbols that arise from them in our mind that convey meaning to us. Because of this, our own understanding of those meanings may (and likely will) differ from someone else's understanding; i.e., others can interpret what we say differently from how we meant it to be interpreted.
Of all the steps on the eightfold path, Right Speech is one of the most difficult to master, and this is why Chan Masters sometimes will tell their students to 'hold their tongue' until their practice has evolved adequately.
There is much that can be said about Right Speech, but an often overlooked aspect is the motive that goes behind what we say. More than the words we speak, it is our motivation that determines whether we are properly regarding Right Speech.
There is a story of a man who was very highly respected in his circle of friends and colleagues at a famous university. He had received many awards and was highly regarded as an expert in his field. He had also read many books on Buddhism and was greatly interested in it but felt he needed a teacher to instruct him.
Only the "best of the best" would do since he considered himself already quite adept. He made reservations on a transatlantic flight and a few days later was standing in front of a remote Chan temple nestled on the side of a mountain in South China.
The door was closed so he pounded on it and yelled in his best Chinese: "I have come to learn from you about the Dharma! Open the door!"
When there was no answer, he tried again "I have flown here from thousands of miles away to learn from you about the Dharma! Let me come in!"
Still there was no answer. He waited for quite some time and then tried again "I have written many books and people come from all over the world to learn from me. Now I want to learn from you!"
He tried again and again using different tactics. Finally the door opened and a monk walked out with a pail. To the man's surprise, the monk ignored him as he went on his errand of fetching water. Returning to the temple, the monk opened the door and went inside without so much as a glance at the stranger staring incredulously and silently at the entrance.
He had thought that maybe nobody had heard him, but now it seemed that he was being deliberately ignored. In rage he yelled "How dare you treat me like this! Is this how you treat people who want to learn about your sacred ways?"
He yelled some more and paced up and down the path leading to the great temple. He had come so far that to go back was not an option. So he stayed outside, near the front entrance and waited.
Days came and went, and as they did he would watch in consternation as monks came out to do some task then went back inside, still, all the while, ignoring him. He had stopped trying to gain entrance by this time. Eventually his food supply was nearing its end and he knew he would soon have to walk back down the mountain and return home. By then, he had had much time to consider his situation. He had also become weak and sullen.
After much introspection and contemplation, he arose from the ground, assembled his few belongings, and set off on the narrow path that led down the mountain. After traveling only a short distance from the temple he heard rapid footfalls from behind and turned to see a young monk racing toward him. The monk ran up to him and put his arms around his shoulders and turned him around, all the while saying nothing.
The two men returned to the temple where three other monks waited with the door open. All the while, the man from the West remained speechless. His entrance had not been gained from words at all, but from the giving-up of his own sense of self-importance.
His words had served to express the strength of his ego and not his readiness to receive the Dharma.
As long as we are preoccupied with self-serving, self-aggrandizing motives, those will be the motives behind our speech. We may tell people we want one thing, when, perhaps unconsciously, we want only to have our ego stroked.
We will speak to put others down in order that we may feel superior; we will gossip about others in order to maximize our own importance at the expense of another's; we will lie if it helps us get what we want for ourselves; we will use our past accomplishments to try to impress others of our worthiness.
When the ego is at the helm, Right Speech is nearly impossible to attain - but when we have attained the ability to see things from another's points of view (Right Understanding) and when we have begun the hard discipline of keeping our spiritual objectives in sight (Right Thought or Purpose), we then can begin to watch and correct our speech.
We can inquire about our motivations for what we say -- we can look to see if our thoughts and words are self-centered, or not. Instead of speaking impulsively, we can begin to speak thoughtfully and caringly.
And we then discover that we don't have nearly as much to say as we once did.
4) Right Action
Doing is the great thing. For if, resolutely, people do what is right, in time they come to like doing it."
Years ago I was walking in a large crowded city. There were lots of tourists and many workers scurrying around shuttling deliveries or trying to make a little pocket change by washing windows or handing out flyers.
I happened to look across the busy street and saw two young and disheveled men accosting an elderly man. The elderly man appeared well dressed and was flailing his arms about and screaming for help. The two men were hitting him with sticks and quickly the elderly man was down on the sidewalk but the screams for help continued.
That this all happened in daylight with many people walking by was not nearly as disturbing as the fact that nobody stopped to help. In the time that it took me to notice the incident and cross the busy street, the two young men had vanished and the old man lay bleeding on the ground. People passed by him on both sides without even looking down.
"I gave them my wallet." He told me "but they didn't seem to care ... they just kept beating me and beating me."
I was glad that he was still conscious and I stayed with him until help came and he was taken to the hospital.
Every day we are faced with situations that require a decisive course of action from us, whether it is waiting for a red light to turn green so we can drive through the intersection, or waiting for the cashier at the grocery store to tell us how much we owe for our food so we can pay. But these are trivial actions that take little attention from us - there's no question in our mind about right and wrong: they are just common-sense decisions.
But, when something new and unexpected is thrown our way, we sometimes find ourselves in a precarious situation - trying to determine what the right course of action may be.
When there are established rules to follow, that makes it easy - we know all we have to do is follow the rules and our decisions will at least be accepted by our peers and by society. But when there are no fixed rules or guidelines to follow, we're on our own.
In the beating incident I witnessed, the pedestrians made the decision to not get involved, perhaps thinking that in not taking action they would be exonerated from the affair. Maybe they didn't want to jeopardize their own safety or soil their clothes. I don't know. But they failed at Right Action because they were thinking of themselves first.
While Right Action means that we must conduct our behaviour in accordance with the five precepts (the ethical rules of Buddhism) it also means we must act in a way that is in accordance with our transcendent spiritual goals. This includes recognizing all people as spiritual beings -- as our brothers and sisters.
Avoiding wrong actions comes naturally when we are attentive to right actions. Right Action strengthens our resolution to follow the spiritual path toward enlightenment. As we work toward becoming consciously more aware of our actions and inactions as well as the resulting effects on our lives and the lives of others, we can act more knowledgably with an understanding of the consequences our actions bring.
This is when we become able to adjust our actions appropriately to be in accordance with this fourth step on the Eighfold Path.
When we apply insight to our actions, we quickly discover that when we do something that causes harm (violates the precepts) there is a negative effect on our conscience, and that this effect has a halting effect on our spiritual progress.
We may get depressed, moody, angry. We may enter a vicious circle of precepts violations - turning to alcohol or drugs for temporary relief or turning to our job as a source of happiness while neglecting our families and our commitments to our spiritual practice. We may even invite others to join us in our depths of misery.
But when we perform an action that is in accordance with selfless "doing good" we discover it gives a propulsive force to our spiritual progress and lifts us out of the swamp. We may stop the car to let a pedestrian cross the street and get a wave and smile of gratitude. We may take food to the homeless shelter knowing it will make a few hungry people a little happier and healthier. We may talk nicely about other people even though they may not speak nicely of us. We may help others in need even though it may jeopardize our own safety.
When we let the heart guide our actions and remove the ego's wants and desires from the motives behind our actions, the five precepts are not only followed naturally, they become common-sense.
Our altruistic outlook breeds ease in practicing the precepts and our efforts become effortless.
5) Right Livelihood
If a man love the labor of any trade, apart from any question of success or fame, the Gods have called him."
There is a great deal of misunderstanding about Right Livelihood. All societies depend on a vast assortment of jobs. Refuse collectors are every bit as important to the health of a society as are Doctors and Firefighters and teachers and artists.
When we talk about Right Livelihood, we are not always talking about choosing the "best" job or career for ourselves, or about choosing the one that is more "moral" or "ethical" than another - we are talking about how we approach the livelihood we have chosen, or that has chosen us.
A woman I met on a bus ride not long ago confided in me about how she loved her job in the meat-packing factory on the other side of town.
"I've been a vegetarian for over 40 years" she told me. "The idea of eating meat just never occurs to me anymore, but I love getting up in the morning and going to work. I move the meats from the conveyor belt to a packing and sorting area. When I find a problem ... like there's something wrong with the meat, or someone's dropped some on the floor and then thrown it back on the table for processing (which does happen she assured me) I get involved and if it's something I can't fix myself I get the manager and it gets fixed that way."
I asked her why she thought she liked her job so much, especially since she didn't eat meat.
"I don't know ... I guess I just get ‘into the groove.’ I know what I need to do, and I try to do a good job. It may sound funny, but the routine is kind of relaxing and pleasant. I know other people will eat the meat and enjoy it and that's okay with me ... I want to do my part to get them good quality food."
My first thought was that this woman understood what the Buddha must have meant by Right Livelihood. Instead of being self-aggrandizing about being a vegetarian she accepted the fact that many people are happy eating meat. Rather than complaining about the monotony of the work, she embraced it, realizing that the monotony could be pleasant. She seemed to have no desires to attain a higher position or status in the company. She didn't complain or gossip about the people she worked with. There was no conflict for her because she was personally detached from the work.
Right Livelihood means that regardless of what type of work we do we strive to disengage our ego from it. We apply ourselves to do the best job we can, without regard for reward.
Whether we are barbers, gardeners, politicians, or corporate executives, when we apply this approach to our jobs we find that a great deal of our old concerns and stresses suddenly vanish.
6) Right Effort
People who don't appreciate the struggles of climbing lack understanding of where they've been, awareness of who they are, and determination to continue climbing. That's why they never attain the Dharma.
"People are always looking for the easy way. The hard way - the way learned by difficult experience and painful realizations - doesn't interest them. They want a short-cut. True Dharma seekers are afraid of short-cuts. They know better. They know that without effort, there's no sense of accomplishment. It's that sense that keeps them going."
There is no stronger bond to sever than that between the mind and the ego. That is the simple reason that Chan's path is so difficult.
It takes every ounce of effort we can muster to detach ourselves from this most capricious constituent of our psyches. Until we recognize the Self that exists apart from who we think we are we cannot know the Chan mind.
This knowledge of Self can only be found once we stop identifying ourselves with our professions, our families, our likes and dislikes, our opinions, etc.; for all these attachments are the raw constituents of the ego.
Detachment is not only difficult, it is often painful too, and to pull us through it requires great courage and the faith that we will succeed.
Recently a young man asked me for support in his decision to attend a two-week retreat at a Japanese-style Zendo. I asked him who his teacher was and he mentioned a few popular books he had read recently. When I asked him why he wanted to attend a retreat like the one he described, he began confiding in me. He told me that his life was in a shambles - he had lost his job, his wife was filing for divorce -- it was the same story I had heard countless times.
This happens to many of us at some point in our lives. We hit rock bottom and that's when we start looking for a spiritual solution. This man's mistake was in thinking that sitting on a cushion for hours every day, with little sleep at night, for two weeks, was going to give him the spiritual solution he was looking for.
"You have a serious problem." I told him "but you are looking for an easy way out: check yourself into a Zendo, wait a couple weeks, and presto: all problems solved. Chan doesn't work this way.”
I explained to him that while there is a place in the Chan practitioner's life for meditation retreats, these retreats are best attended once we have already attained some ability to disengage from the ego and to enter the meditative state. If we haven't, these long periods of quiescence can actually be psychologically harmful and set us back rather than move us forward. I explained that Chan begins with the Eightfold Path, of which the last step is meditation, and that the Buddha put these steps together in a specific sequence intentionally.
"Imagine" I told him "that you are out at sea on a ship that is sinking. There is a pole - a tall mast -- on this ship and so you grab onto it and begin to climb until you get to the top. You look down and watch as the water approaches you.
You know that something will have to give, that you will have a choice to make: do you continue to hang on to the last solid object in sight for miles or do you let go and let fate take over?"
Entrance into Chan's precincts is much like this. We are on a sinking ship (our life, and our sense of lost control over it) and we feel a horrid dread, as though we can not go on living in the way we have any longer. We know we can't hang on to the pole because it will drown us if we do, but we don't know what will happen if we let go. The sinking pole is the only sense of security we have left, yet we must have the faith and courage to let go and take our chances with the unknown. Our situation is a matter of life and death.
Unless we get to this point in our lives, spiritual liberation remains only a tenuous hypothesis, but once we have the courage to let go of the pole, it becomes very real.
Everyone, of any religion, who has experienced liberation understands this. The extreme effort it takes to let go of the attachments to our imagined self is the effort it takes to let go of the security of the pole and enter the unknown of an egoless existence.
7) Right Mindfulness
Acts are small; the Principle is great. Acts are various; the Principle is one. Those who live the Principle, who let its meaning flow through their very bloodstream, never act at variance with it. In whatever they do, they fulfill the Principle. Whether busy or at ease they are never deceitful, never manipulative. They have no hidden motives and need none."
Few Chan stories express the nature of Right Mindfulness better than this story recounted so often by Master Hsu Yun: Once upon a time a man of Chan was walking along the ledge of a high mountain path when a tiger suddenly confronted him. To escape, he grabbed hold of a sapling and lowered himself over the edge of a precipice.
While he clung there -- with the snarling mouth of the tiger a few feet above him and the base of the cliff far below him -- he felt the sapling's roots slowly begin to tear away. He could find no foothold or anything else to grab. But as he dangled there, wondering what he should do next, he noticed a strawberry growing out of a cleft nearby. Letting go, he picked it and ate it and remarked to himself that, especially considering the time of year, it was particularly sweet.
In the enlightened state the mind has no sense of a separate identity - it is free to experience and act without the encumbrances placed upon it by the persona.
A clear mind is a mind that is empty of itself. It is a mind which can observe and appreciate the smallest detail even in the midst of extreme adversity. It is not an easy state to achieve and much spiritual labor must come before we can hope to achieve this degree of equanimity.
But we can make small humble steps toward it by paying attention to our actions and thoughts - to be mindful of our lives in every way and to avoid needless acts that serve only to pay tribute to the ego.
With the peace and tranquility that arises from the practice of Right Mindfulness we are finally ready to embark on Chan's final journey: meditation.
8) Right Concentration or Meditation
There are three kinds of silence. Silence from words is good, because inordinate speaking tends to evil. Silence, or rest from desires and passions is still better, because it promotes quietness of spirit. But the best of all is silence from unnecessary and wandering thoughts, because that is essential to internal recollection, and because it lays a foundation for a proper reputation and for silence in other respects."
Meditation is common to all world religions and there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of meditation techniques that have been passed down through the centuries.
But all forms of meditation begin with the silencing of the mind - the cessation of random thoughts that interfere with the mind's ability to concentrate.
Beginning meditation practices are always "with seed", i.e., with a subject for concentration. It can be a thing, like a shoelace, or a candle, or a flower, or it can be an idea, or a thought, or a sound, or a physical sensation like the pulse or the breath, but the key ingredient is always focused concentration.
The direct translation of the eighth step from the Sanskrit is actually "Right Concentration". Meditation arises naturally when Right Concentration is achieved. Concentration is something we must learn through dedicated practice while meditation is something that simply happens to us when our mind is properly focused in concentration.
The first time we try to concentrate "on seed" it may seem impossible. The mind wanders in all directions and we find ourselves struggling to bring it under control.
We may get our first glimpse of "monkey mind" and become startled to learn that "monkey-mind" has become our normal way of being. But we mustn't become disillusioned. With steady practice we can make rapid progress. We become "hooked" as we discover that meditation has led us into whole new realms of being and understanding and that it enriches our lives in ways we would never have imagined possible.
Through diligent practice, and following the simple yet ironically difficult Eightfold Path, we lift ourselves out of the samsaric realm of ego-consciousness and into the glorious nirvanic realm of Buddha knowledge.
And we realize that this, all along, was the Buddha's intention with the Eightfold Path from the beginning.