2012 Interview with Chuan Zhi
- Feb 15
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This interview was conducted on January 27th, 2012, by a visitor to our website who wishes to remain anonymous.
Q: Are you the leader of your organization? If so, what is your role?
I am the Abbot of the Order, which means I am the “senior monk”. Technically, I am no longer a monk because I no longer live in a monastery. But as the senior cleric, I am the person responsible for the health of the order which means several things. For one, it means I have to consider our public image, nationally and internationally. I also have to be aware that the actions of our clergy and our writings can affect our Dharma brothers and sisters in many other parts of the world. While we are an eclectic group of Chan practitioners, we must ensure that we always respect other people’s approaches to Chan in particular and to Buddhism in general, as well as, more broadly, all other religious traditions. It is also my responsibility to insure that we, as an order, maintain a strong commitment to Dharma (Buddhist “law,” in the spiritual sense) both publically and privately. I also officiate ceremonies and am responsible for the content that is posted on our public website.
Q: Some western Buddhist organizations, such as the Western Buddhist Order, have one person as the head of the order. Are you the head of the order? Do people have to do whatever you say?
Yes and no. I am the head cleric, so I have a high level of responsibility for ensuring that we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing. It is all set out in our bylaws. But big decisions that affect the direction of the order are made by our board of directors, most of whom are Senior Dharma Teachers. We exist as a non-profit organization, as the legal framework of these entities is well suited to the needs of our group. You mentioned the Western Buddhist Order. It is not a Chan order, for one, so they have somewhat different objectives and ideas about things than we do. The head of their group has complete autonomous authority in all things. Our order does not work this way. People in our order are free to do as they want as long as they abide by our bylaws which lay out the rules. This document was fashioned by our board in 2011. If someone does not wish to follow the bylaws, or are not in agreement with our principles, they are free to leave. But they are also free to address the issues they are not happy with and offer alterations/adjustments that might prove valuable to the order. We have found that our order is stronger and healthier because of the involvement of our clergy in maters that shape who we are and what we do. We are not a democracy, but neither are we a totalitarian regime. The bylaws are written in such a way that if I, as Abbot, should “go bad”, I can be voted out and replaced by the board of directors. This is a very different approach from the Western Buddhist Order and likely most other Chan groups. It actually has similarities to the structure used by the Chinese, and many other religious groups around the world.
Q: As “the Order of Hsu Yun”, do you worship Hsu Yun?
We do not worship people. Hsu Yun was my master’s master. My master (Jy Din Shakya) named the order after him because of his profound respect and love for him. It is an honorary naming. When we say that we propagate the teachings of Hsu Yun, we are saying that we propagate the teachings of the Dharma, because that is all that Hsu Yun taught. Of course there are many other people who taught the Dharma … and many weren’t even Buddhists. That’s why we have writings from many different mystical religious traditions, and non-religious mystics, on our website. They aren’t writings from Hsu Yun, but they are writings about the Dharma.
Q: I was not able to find any information on the Web about your finances, how much you charge for membership, what your yearly expenses and revenues are, etc. Many orders make this information publically available. Is this something you keep secret? If so, why?
There is no secret because we charge nothing. We have no bank account because we have no assets or flow of capital. All our expenses are paid for directly by our clergy as needed, and as able.
Q: How can this be? Then you must have a benefactor?
No benefactor. Our emphasis is on practicing Chan “at home” -- independently. It actually doesn’t cost anything to do this ;-) Some of our clergy have sanghas that meet regularly, some sponsor monthly retreats, etc. These activities are paid for by the sanghas that host them, and by the clerics themselves who organize and officiate them. But most of the members of our order, those who have taken precepts from one of our clerics, are encouraged to practice independently.
Q: Why do you distinguish yourselves as a Chan Buddhist order instead of a regular Buddhist order? Wouldn’t being simply a “Buddhist Order” be more all-embracing of Buddhism?
Chan is a unique thing that arose in China over the last couple millennia and is a mixture of Indian Buddhism and Chinese Taoism. Saying that we are a Chan Buddhist order is reminding people of Chan’s origins. There are many Buddhist groups and orders, but many are not Chan orders. That is, they do not practice Chan, at least not as their primary objective. Our whole thing is Chan. Is this not fully embracing of Buddhism you ask? I guess it is not. Or maybe it is. But what is Buddhism? Every country, culture, and even every individual Buddhist, has a different idea of what Buddhism is. There is no one Buddhism. There are hundreds, thousands. Which one to choose? Our thing is Chan and if that’s what someone wants, here we are. If they want an ethnic Chinese, or Korean, or Japanese, or Tibetan style Buddhist group, then they will find one of those out there. There are many of them. Our aim is not to be all things to all people, but to be just one thing.
Q: Can anyone do Chan? Is anyone welcome into your order?
Can anyone do Chan? Anyone can get to the place where they are ready to do Chan. But not everyone is ready for Chan from where they are. There are prerequisites. Anyone can meet those prerequisites if they have adequate drive to do so. It’s not an intellectual activity, so it’s not something one can get from reading a book or a sutra or listening to a wise man talk on the subject or “being in the presence of a master”. Is anyone welcome into our order? No. As a Chan order, only people interested in doing Chan are welcome. But I liken this to a book club … only people who like to read books will be welcome, right? Why would someone who doesn’t like to read books want to join a book club?
Q: You say you're a western order, but you have lots of pictures of Chinese Buddhist masters on your pages. Does this confuse people?
Maybe it confuses some people. All those Chinese masters represent our Dharma lineage – our spiritual connection to past and present generations of masters that goes back to the Buddha. It’s valuable to recognize this connection. Chan would not still be alive if it weren’t for the devotion our forefathers had for propagating Chan. When we discover something of immense value, we tend to be quite thankful for all the circumstances of the past that allowed that discovery to happen for us.
Q: There is another group that calls themselves ZBOHY. What is that all about?
In 2004 there was a rift within the sangha and subsequently two groups came into being. Both groups claimed ownership of “ZBOHY” but neither group wanted to go to court over it. So there are two ZBOHY’s. Our claim to ownership is that I was made Abbot of the order in 1998 in China under the authority of 10 Buddhist masters and the Chinese national Buddhist Association. Their claim to ownership is that it was a sangha that evolved from another sangha called the Nan Hua Buddhist Society.
Q: What is the relationship between Chan and Buddhism? Why not just call yourself a Chan Order? Might that cause less confusion? After all, Chan, it seems, can be practiced by people of any religious faith, no? Do you only serve people who are Buddhists?
As mentioned earlier, Chan comes out of Indian Buddhism and Taoism. It is not separate. But one can be a Buddhist without being a Chan Buddhist. That is, there is much more than just Chan in Buddhism. For many people, Chan is not appealing. Chan is a very intense path to take – it requires extreme motivation, extreme faith, and extreme discipline. So, one can be a Buddhist without being a Chan Buddhist, but one cannot practice Chan without also practicing Buddhism. Yes, there are groups we hear about that are “Christian Chan” or “Jewish Chan”, etc., and they may be doing Chan, but if they are doing Chan, they are also “doing” Buddhism, whether they know it or not. And there is nothing wrong with this. The wonderful thing about Chan is its ability to adapt to different cultures. You ask if we only serve people who are Buddhists. We serve anyone who is interested in learning about, or practicing, Chan. One doesn’t have to be a Buddhist, or even officially convert to Buddhism. The teachings of Chan are open to everyone.
Q: I have read that you are an “Internet Ministry”. How can a Chan Buddhist Order only be on the Internet? Is “virtual Chan” the same as “real Chan”?
We started out as an Internet ministry in 1997 but since then things have changed. We now have physical sanghas all over the world. If you want to talk about real vs. virtual, I will ask you, what is real? What is virtual? How do you distinguish one from the other? Doing Chan is doing Chan.
Q: Many people have noticed that your clergy wear green robes, yet this isn’t a color that’s found in Chinese temples. Since your lineage is Chinese, through Hsu Yun, shouldn’t your robes be brown?
Our clergy may wear the traditional brown kesas, but it’s not required. We made the decision some years ago to choose a color for our kesas that would be distinctive for our Order. In this way, there is less confusion about who we are: we are clearly not a Chinese ethnic Buddhist order, for example. This helps avoid conflicts that sometimes develop. For example, in China, when one wears a kesa of any color it is generally assumed that the person has learned hundreds of rules for temple protocols. If one wears a kesa but knows none of the protocols, that person will usually be considered a fraud, regardless of his or her spiritual “attainments” or commitment to the Buddha Dharma.
Q: What do mean by “Chinese ethnic” Buddhism?
Every country that adopts a new religion makes changes to it so that it fits into the pre-existing religious and cultural framework in a way that allows it to feel comfortable in that society. If it does not “feel comfortable” people will not be attracted to it. China had a very long religious history before Buddhism was introduced a couple millennia ago. That history was not eradicated and replaced by Buddhism, Buddhism was absorbed into it.
The very earliest religions in China are considered to have been pluralistic "folk religions"; some consider that they were not religions at all, but philosophical systems coexisting with many different forms of cultural practices, many of which we might consider superstitious in nature. Even today, there are many Buddhists in China and elsewhere around the world who would not consider themselves religious, at least not in the way the term is used in the Occident, referring to forms of Christianity, Judaism, etc. Chinese Buddhists do not worship Buddha, for example, as some westerners think. But they do venerate and sometimes worship their ancestors. This practice goes back to the ancient folk-religions of Chinese pre-history and is still a part of Chinese culture today. It is the reason Chan has such a strong connection with lineage, why "transmission" so strongly pervades Chinese Chan Buddhism. It is believed that one cannot truly know Chan until its essence has been transmitted from another person who had it transmitted from another person, and so on, all the way back to the Buddha. Every Buddhist monastery in China has a special building or room referred to as an Ancestral Hall where people can go to venerate their ancestors. The room contains a large collection of tablets, each of which is believed to contain an aspect of the soul (shen) of the ancestor. Tablet locations are typically purchased by the family of the deceased. This practice is just one of many possible examples of a unique quality of Chinese ethnic Buddhism that is distinct from Chan.
Q: How do westerners in general, and your order in particular, work with this concept of transmission since it is such a dominant feature of Chan, yet the concept is so alien to most westerners.
We take a slightly altered view on transmission than the one commonly perpetuated by other groups, both in the Occident and in the Orient. When someone gains the Big Enlightenment, which comes with Chan practice regimens, transmission is complete. We don’t take the position that another person must somehow have magically made it happen to us. It is through our own effort that it comes to us. Yet we could not have gotten there unless the teachings of Chan were still alive. The reason that they are still alive is because of all our Chan ancestors who devoted their lives to perpetuating Chan and passing these practices down from generation to generation. Transmission, for us, is revealed in the big picture of how all the events of the past came together to allow us to find the Big Enlightenment. This is different from the more conventional idea that in can only be transmitted from one person to another person.
Q: It sounds like you are not an orthodox Buddhist group.
No we’re not! Chan is not orthodox Buddhism, and never has been. Chan is highly adaptive in its nature, its practices are exceedingly simple and direct and do not require any particular belief system. In fact, one of the most important features of Chan practice is that we shed all our beliefs entirely, with the exception that we maintain a belief in the practice itself, believing that it will prove fruitful if we continue with it, however difficult it may be.
Q: I have heard some people say that ZBOHY is “Chan according to Chuan Zhi”. That it is not True Chan but “Chuan Zhi” Chan. What do you say to that?
Of course, that’s correct, but only to a point. As the senior cleric, I essentially create and sustain the “big picture” that the Order represents. But this is the natural way things go. Everyone who actualizes Chan develops their own style with it. That’s why there are so many different books out there on the subject, all with slightly different “takes” on it. For the most part, they are all valid and true representations of the Dharma. Because we are all different people, with different experiences and different neurological constitutions, it is a foregone conclusion that everyone who finds Chan will see it in their own unique way. Then when we go about trying to convey it to others it will obviously be in our own unique way. It’s an interesting exercise to read all the different sutras from all the different Buddhist traditions around the world. To the uninitiated/unenlightened they can seem as different from one another as a diamond to a turtle. But once the Big Enlightenment happens, re-read them and they all seem to say the same thing: they are each just different perspectives on the exact same thing. The turtle is the diamond, the diamond is the turtle.
But it’s a big leap to say that because one person’s view of Chan is different from another person’s view of Chan that it’s not “True Chan”. The only way to know “True Chan” is to do the practice yourself and discover it directly. This is the only way it can be known -- through direct experience. Never take the word of another for what it is or is not. Chan isn’t something we learn through lectures or reading, it’s something we learn about by doing.
Q: It’s my impression that there are people who don’t understand exactly what you are as an Order.
We’ve tried to make it as clear as possible on our public website’s “about” page which is one link off of the home page. I guess it’s natural that there is some confusion though, because we are rather unique as a Chan order. While we have strong ties to Chinese Chan, we are a Western order, preferring to allow western ethnic values to integrate into our practice more that Chinese ethnic ones. Yet we keep some of the Chinese forms, such as the kesa, as reminders of where we came from, and to honor our Chan ancestors. All Buddhists are connected to the Buddha through the oral accounts of his teachings and the continued teachings from generation to generation. They comprise essential ingredients for Chan. In the west there are Chan groups that take the “Buddhism” out of it. Some people like this, or want this, and there are others who can provide it for them. There are also Buddhist groups that do not emphasize Chan, but rather ethnic practices from one culture or another. There is something for everyone. There is still much confusion in the west over what Chan is, how it should be taught, what forms of practice should be used, how the lineage tradition should be interpreted and implemented, what color and style of robes are appropriate, what people should eat or not eat, etc. Chan provides no direct answers to these questions. It’s up to the culture as a whole to figure it out. There is no single Buddhist institution in the West as there is in China. Buddhism is presented as small groups led by individual teachers, often in quite different ways. It’s a very colorful scene actually. Maybe someday things will settle down and there will be more of a homogenous approach … but maybe not. The very nature of Chan lends itself to color. I think that’s a good thing.
Q: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions from the ZBOHY perspective. Is there anything else you would like to add?
These thoughts are not from the ZBOHY perspective necessarily, but they are from my own personal perspective. I can assure you that our members have some different perspectives from mine. But we all have one thing in common that is the most important: we all care deeply about discovering the nature of Being, of who it is we are, and many of us want to share what we discover with others as we go. The life of Zen is life itself.