3. Zen Master Hsueh Yen's Story
Time does not wait for people. Swiftly the next incarnation will be upon you. Therefore, why do you not try to understand [Zen] and study in earnest with a humble mind to make it transparently clear throughout? How fortunate you are to live here, surrounded by famous mountains and great lakes! How lucky you are to find yourself in a world full of Dharmas and great Masters! Your monastery is clean and neat, the food good and nourishing. Water and firewood abound nearby. If you do not use this hard-to-find opportunity to understand [Zen] clearly and thoroughly, you are squandering your life. You are sinking yourself in self-abandonment and willingly abasing yourself to become a low, stupid person. If you feel ignorant about this teaching, why do you not question the elders extensively and ponder on what they say to discover the meaning?
I had joined the priesthood at the age of five. When I overheard my teacher discussing this matter with his guests and visitors, then I knew that there was such a thing as Zen, and immediately I had faith in it. Soon I began to learn how to meditate. At sixteen I was ordained, and at seventeen I started travel-for-study visits.33 At the dwelling place of the Master Yuan of Shuang Lin I joined the congregation-for-meditation. From dawn to sunset I never left room or court. Even when I entered the dormitory, I just crossed my hands within my big sleeves and looked straight ahead without seeing anything to the right or to the left. I fixed my eyes on a spot about three feet ahead of me. In the beginning I observed the word "Wu." One day I suddenly turned my mind inward, seeking to discover where and how the thought first arose. Instantly I felt as if my mind had become frozen. It became clear, serene, and limpid, neither moving nor shaking. The whole day seemed like a passing second. I did not even hear the sounds of drums and bells, which occurred at regular intervals in the monastery.
When I was nineteen I stayed at the Lin Yin Monastery as a visiting monk. Meanwhile, I had received a letter from Chu Chou which said, "Dear Chin, your Zen is a dead Zen. That which you have been working on is like dead water—useless. Your work is to divide activity and inactivity into two. The important thing in Zen work [tsen Zen] is to arouse the feeling of "inquiry-doubt" [I chin].34 A small inquiry-doubt will bring a small enlightenment, and a greater inquiry-doubt will bring forth a great enlightenment." Chu Chou's words hit the mark. I then changed my Hua Tou from "Wu" to the "Dry Dung," and continued my observation. Observing the Hua Ton from different angles, I constantly doubted this and doubted that. As a result I was besieged by drowsiness and errant thoughts. I could not hold a single moment of peace in my mind.
I then went to Chin Tsu Monastery and banded together with seven brethren of Dharma there. We vowed to meditate in a most strict manner. We put aside our quilts and refused to lie down on our beds. The chief monk, Brother Hsiu, remained outside [our room]. Every day, when he sat down on the meditation seat, he appeared as steady and immovable as an iron pole thrust into the ground. When he walked he opened his eyes and dropped his arms so that he still looked like an iron pole. No one could become intimate or talk with him.
For two years I did not lie down. Then one day I became so tired that I gave up and lay down and had a good sleep. Two months passed before I collected myself and was ready to work again. The relaxation I had had in those two months refreshed me. I felt very vigorous and lively. From this experience I learned that if one wants to understand this matter he cannot go completely without sleep. A sound sleep at midnight is necessary to refresh oneself.
One day I noticed the chief monk, Hsiu, by the balustrade. This was the first time I had had an opportunity to speak with him. "For the past year I have wanted to talk to you. Why do you always avoid me?" I asked. Hsiu replied, "One who really practices the Tao has no time even to cut his nails. Who has the leisure to talk to you?" I then asked him what to do about the drowsiness and errant thoughts which afflicted me. He said, "These things happen because you are not earnest enough. You should sit erect on your seat, keep your spine straight, make your whole body and mind become one Hua Tou, and pay no attention to drowsiness or wild thoughts." Working in accord with his instructions, I unknowingly forgot both my body and mind—even their very existence. For three days and three nights my mind stayed so serene and clear that I never closed my eyes for a single moment. On the afternoon of the third day I walked through the three gates 35 of the monastery as if I were sitting. Again I came across Hsiu. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "Working on the Tao," I answered. He then said, "What is this you call the Tao?" Not able to answer him, I became more confused and perplexed. With the intention of meditating further I turned back toward the meditation hall. But accidentally I met Hsiu again. He said, "Just open your eyes and see what it is!" After this admonishment I was even more anxious to return to the meditation hall than before. As I was just going to sit down, something broke abruptly before my face as if the ground were sinking away. I wanted to tell how I felt, but I could not express it. Nothing in this world can be used as a simile to describe it. Immediately I went to find Hsiu. As soon as he saw me he said, "Congratulations! Congratulations!" Holding my hand, he led me out of the monastery. We walked along the river dike, which was full of willow trees. I looked up at the sky and down at the earth. [I actually felt] that all phenomena and manifestations, the things I saw with my eyes and heard with my ears, the things that disgusted me—including the passion-desires and the blindnesses—all flowed out from my own bright, true, and marvelous mind. During the next fortnight no moving phenomena appeared in my mind.
Unfortunately, at that time I had no advanced Zen Master to instruct me. Thus I mistakenly lingered in such a state for many years. This is the so-called state wherein "The view is not thorough, therefore it hinders genuine understanding." I could not hold the "view" while sleeping. [Literally: "During the state of sleep, it (the view) broke into two pieces."] At this stage I could grasp the koans that were intelligible, but whenever I met any of those impenetrable "silver-mountainlike" and "iron-wall-like" koans, I could not understand them at all. Although I had practiced for many years under my deceased teacher, Wu Chun, none of his private discussions or public talks struck my heart. None of the Zen books or sutras meant much to me. This obstacle was an oppression within my heart and breast for ten years. Then one day, when I was walking in the hall of Tien Mou Monastery, I lifted my head and saw a cypress tree standing before me. Suddenly, in a flash, I understood. The experience heretofore gained and the obstacle weighing upon my heart and breast all melted away. The feeling was akin to experiencing the bright sun shining suddenly into a dark room. From that time on I had no doubts about birth and death, no questions about Buddha and the Patriarchs. Then when I saw where that old man, Chin Shan, stood, I gave him thirty blows!