Samādhi and Prajñā


The key to Chinul’s variety of Sŏn Buddhism revolves around three distinct styles of practice that was directly influenced through “three enlightenment experiences.” Firstly, there is the balanced equation of samādhi and prajñā–all derived from a transformative experience involving the Platform Sutra; secondly, there was complete faith and transcendent knowing according to the sudden teachings of the Hwaŏm school, from Li Ti’hung-hsüan’s Exposition of the Avatasaka Sütra; thirdly, he utilized a shortcut approach of the hwadu (koan-like) applications, from the Records of Ta-hui. Each will be examined separately.

Samādhi and Prajñā

Chinul’s first awakening is written on his memorial stele:

By chance one day in the study hall as he was looking through the Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch, he came across a passage which said, “The self-nature of suchness gives rise to thoughts. But even though the six sense-faculties see, hear, sense, and know, it is not tainted by the myriads of images. The true nature is constantly free and self-reliant.” Astonished, he was overjoyed at gaining what he had never experienced before and, getting up, he walked around the hall, reflecting on the passage while continuing to recite it. His heart was satisfied. From that time on, his mind was averse to fame and profit; he desired only to dwell in seclusion in the mountain ravines. Bearing hardship joyfully, he aspired to the path; he was obsessed with this quest. (ibid, pg.23)

For Chinul, continual emphasis on readings from the Platform Sūtra “as well as the influence of Tsung-mi’s writings spelled out the need to support the initial awakening to the mind-nature with the simultaneous cultivation of samādhi and prajñā, and the concurrent development of alertness and calmness of mind.” (ibid, pg.23). To his dying day, the Platform Sūtra was a perennial favorite and he referred to it often. We will now turn to his early works, Encouragement to Practice: The Compact of the Samādhi and Prajña Community, and Secrets on Cultivating the Mind, which both highlight the emphasis on Samādhi and Prajñā.

Firstly, Chinul’s main emphasis was always on the following:

The triple world is blazing in defilement as if it were a house on fire. How can you bear to tarry here and complacently undergo such long suffering? If you wish to avoid wandering in samsara there is no better way than to seek Buddhahood. If you want to become a Buddha, understand that Buddha is the mind. How can you search for the mind in the far distance? It is not outside the body. The physical body is a phantom, for it is subject to birth and death; the true mind is like space, for it neither ends nor changes. Therefore it is said, “These hundred bones will crumble and return to fire and wind. But One Thing is eternally numinous and covers heaven and earth.” (SOCM, ibid, pg. 140)

As the Avataṃsaka Sūtra states, “If a person wants to comprehend the state of Buddhahood, he should purify his mind until it is just like empty space.” Chinul always insisted, “Cultivate, cultivate, cultivate!”! In such fashion, although one’s practice appears to be difficult in the early stages, if one persists then gradually all will be brought to fulfillment. “Knowing our own mistakes, we should endeavor to reform and discipline ourselves. From morning to evening we should diligently cultivate and quickly leave behind all suffering.”

Question: You have said that this twofold approach of sudden awakening/gradual cultivation is the track followed by thousands of saints. But if awakening is really sudden awakening, what need is there for gradual cultivation? And if cultivation means gradual cultivation, how can you speak of sudden awakening? We hope that you will expound further on these two ideas of sudden and gradual and resolve our remaining doubts. 

Chinul: First let us take sudden awakening. When the ordinary man is deluded, he assumes that the four great elements are his body and the false thoughts are his mind. He does not know that his own nature is the true dharma-body; he does not know that his own numinous awareness is the true Buddha. He looks for the Buddha outside his mind. While he is thus wandering aimlessly, the entrance to the road might by chance be pointed out by a wise advisor. If in one thought he then follows back the light [of his mind to its source] and sees his own original nature, he will discover that the ground of this nature is innately free of defilement, and that he himself is originally endowed with the non-outflow wisdom-nature which is not a hair’s breadth different from that of all the Buddhas. Hence it is called sudden awakening.

Next let us consider gradual cultivation. Although he has awakened to the fact that his original nature is no different from that of the Buddhas, the beginningless habit-energies are extremely difficult to remove suddenly; and so he must continue to cultivate while relying on this awakening. Through this gradual permeation, his endeavors reach completion. He constantly nurtures the sacred embryo, (hidden bodhichild, inclusion mine) and after a long time he becomes a saint. Hence it is called gradual cultivation. (ibid, SOCM, pg.144)

In the True Records of Yi it is said:

The two words samādhi and prajña are an abbreviation for the threefold training which, in its complete form, is called śīla, samādhi, and prajñā. Śīla means to guard against wrong and bring evil to a halt; it prevents one from falling into the three evil bourns. Samādhi means to come into accordance with the noumenon and absorb scatteredness; it enables one to transcend the six desires. Prajñā means that one critically investigates dharmas and contemplates their voidness; it marvelously leads out of birth and death. Saints who are free from the outflows must have trained in all of these during their cultivation on the causal stage. Consequently, they are called the threefold training. (ibid, ETP, pg. 105)

From all this we get the sense that Chinul’s approach was not so much novel but a faithful continuation of former master-teachers based on the principles. For instance, a wonderful gāthā states:

The adamantine armor of samādhi
Can stop the arrows of defilement.
Samādhi is the storehouse for keeping wisdom;
It is the field of merit for all good qualities.
If the dust of the world hides the sun in the sky,
A great rain can wash it away.
If the wind of thought and imagination scatter the mind,
Samādhi can halt it. (Ta-chih-tu fun)

Chinul’s Charter Statement is the following:

Consequently, throughout this Encouragement to Practice I have relied on the doctrines of the Mahayana sūtras and śāstras for authentication. I have briefly assessed the cause for the development of faith and understanding regarding the Sŏn transmission, as well as the gain and loss accompanying birth and death and the passing from the mundane world into the pure land. I have done so because I want those of you who enter this community and wish to cultivate the mind to be aware of the roots and branches of practice, to cease from wrangling, and to distinguish between the provisional and the real. Then you will not waste your efforts as you cultivate properly the road of practice in the Mahayana approach to dharma. Let us develop the correct causes together, cultivate samādhi and prajñā together, cultivate the vows of practice together, be born in the Buddha-land together, and realize bodhi together.

After training together in these things to the very limit of the future, let us then roam leisurely in self-reliance throughout all the worlds in the ten directions as both masters and comrades of one another. Let us help each other to achieve our aim; and, turning the wheel of the right dharma, let us then ferry across all beings so that we may requite the immense kindness of all the Buddhas. Elevating our thoughts, may the eyes of the Buddhas certify our humble sincerity. On behalf of deluded beings throughout the dharmadhūtu, we make this vow of cultivating samādhi and prajñā together. (ibid, ETP, pg. 124)

Chinul also counseled, “If dullness and torpor are especially heavy, use prajñā to investigate dharmas critically and contemplate their voidness, and allow the mirror of the mind to shine without disturbance in conformity with the original awareness. Control distracting thoughts with samādhi. Control blankness with prajñā.” At the end of the day, though, Chinul equally expounded like a true Ch’an Master:

From morning to evening, throughout the twelve periods of the day, during all your actions and activities-whether seeing, hearing, laughing, talking, whether angry or happy, whether doing good or evil-ultimately who is it that is able to perform all these actions? Speak! If you say that it is the physical body which is acting, then at the moment when a man’s life comes to an end, even though the body has not yet decayed, how is it that the eyes cannot see, the ears cannot hear, the nose cannot smell, the tongue cannot talk, the body cannot move, the hands cannot grasp, and the feet cannot run? You should know that what is capable of seeing, hearing, moving, and acting has to be your original mind; it is not your physical body. Furthermore, the four elements which make up the physical body are by nature void; they are like images in a mirror or the moon’s reflection in water. How can they be clear and constantly aware, always bright and never obscured and, upon activation, be able to put into operation sublime functions as numerous as the sands of the Ganges? For this reason it is said, “Drawing water and carrying firewood are spiritual powers and sublime functions.” (ibid, SOCM, pg. 146)

Chinul also stayed true to the principle: “Do not grasp at the words, but try to understand the meaning directly. Stay focused on the definitive teaching, return to yourselves, and merge with the original guiding principle.” This is what I admire most about Chinul, he was first and foremost a man of principle and devoted to leading others who had awakened to be true and faithful in the disciplined cultivation of that supreme event. If not cultivated, then one will just stagnate in the isolated catacombs of their own mind and just might as well use their “awakening experience” as an ass-wipe.

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