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Again, without Great Faith you cannot make the Great Vow. Without Great Vow, how can you practice with your whole being? And if you cannot do that, Great Determination cannot possibly arise. Therefore these four conditions must come into being in the proper sequence.

Faith is the foundation for anything we set out to do. Without faith we can’t accomplish anything significant. The Great Faith of Ch’an has three aspects: faith in yourself, faith in the method discovered and transmitted by Sakyamuni Buddha and faith in your Shih-fu, who is your direct connection to the Buddha Dharma. What is faith in oneself? It means believing that you can practice effectively, believing that persistence will lead to enlightenment. It means believing that you can, like Sakyamuni, eventually become a Buddha. If you lack this faith, if you think that enlightenment can only happen to others, your practice will falter. So faith in yourself is very basic.

How does this faith arise? At first it is hard to believe that you can be enlightened. However, if you are willing to try it, when you start to practice, you find your mind getting calm and settled. You may later get some other benefits, or even experience things not possible in ordinary life. You begin to believe: “Yes, I too can practice, I too can become enlightened.” Another way of generating faith is to acquire a good understanding of Buddha Dharma, of the principles of Ch’an, and to believe that these principles are true. You come to accept the idea that one can practice and get enlightened. You have never experienced it yourself, but you have an unconditional belief in it.

Great Faith, like the other conditions, is deeply related to what I describe as going from a “small” sense of self to a “large” sense of self and finally to a state of “no-self.” Great Faith starts with faith in oneself-you first have to affirm the very narrow sense of self. After all, who is it that must have faith? It is “I” who must have faith. So you must start with grasping the narrow sense of self. You must know this self in a very clear and solid manner and be confident that you can practice. This grasping of one’s “small self” is the basis of the power of faith.

— Getting The Buddha Mind by Master Sheng-Yen (page 18-19)


To investigate the ultimate Ch’an, you should fulfill four conditions. If these conditions are met, it is possible to realize the highest aims of Ch’an. Short of this, your path is uncertain, and progress is difficult. But these conditions must come spontaneously out of your practice. Certainly a master can’t force them on you or even give them to you. Arising from within, they can be fulfilled more quickly. A master can only lead a disciple onto the Path. The disciple must follow the Path himself. I can only tell you what these requirements are and why they are necessary. The rest is up to you.

When you enter the Path, if you are full of zeal, these conditions arise very naturally. But don’t expect them all at once. You must first begin to practice. As you make progress, they will gradually, or in some cases, quickly, be fulfilled. Much depends on your causes and conditions. Therefore at the beginning of a retreat I do not mention these requirements. I will only talk about them when I see that people are physically and mentally ready to investigate Ch’an.

What are these four conditions? The first is Great Faith; the second is Great Vow; the third is Great Determination; and the fourth is Great Doubt. Great Faith always arises first, followed by Great Vow, and then Great Determination. When there is Great Determination, it is then possible to generate Great Doubt. This is their natural sequence. But Great Doubt is not the ordinary doubt of disbelief. Only when there is Great Faith is it possible to have Great Doubt. Were you to have ordinary doubt at such a time, it could only be a sort of suspicion or non-belief, the opposite of faith. That kind of doubt is not a condition of practice: it is an obstacle.

— Getting The Buddha Mind by Master Sheng-Yen (page 17-18)


Those fortunate enough to have some genuine experience find that the results do not necessarily stay with them. Over a period of time there is a fading away of the experience if it is not reinforced with practice. This is quite common. Even monks and nuns will lose the energy of a deep experience, but it is much more difficult for lay people to retain it. In Ch’an there is a saying: “To hear the Buddha Dharma is not very difficult. More difficult is it to practice. To practice is not very difficult. More difficult is it to realize the Path. To realize the path is not very difficult. More difficult is it not to fall from the Path.” There is another saying: “When you have gotten the Buddha-mind, go to the woods, live by a stream, and meditate. Thus will you nourish your saintly embryo.” When will this baby be born? You don’t know. But, like an expectant mother, you must nourish the saintly embryo. 

To have experienced the Buddha-mind and lost it is a great pity. Even so, to see self-nature is to be forever changed. What is the taste of a mango? If you have never tasted a mango, you can’t imagine it. But having tasted it, you still have a memory of it, however faint. Likewise, someone who has experienced Buddha-mind has been changed forever. If he falls from the Path, he is very aware of it, and in his mind there is always the intention to regain the practice. By comparison, one who has never glimpsed Buddha-mind is confused. 

  — Getting The Buddha Mind by Master Sheng-Yen (page 16-16)


At the start of retreat, the students’ minds are usually scattered. The concerns of daily life are still with them. They may have fears and anticipations about being on retreat. A cold, pains, bodily complaints all add to their more or less uneven state of mind. At this point it is necessary to give them methods that will help them settle down and become concentrated. I often have them start with simple methods, such as counting or following the breath. The reason is that most modern lay people lack a firm foundation in practice. Only when their mind has settled will I give them a kung-anto help generate the doubt sensation. Only then is there a chance for enlightenment. Even without enlightenment, when doubt has formed, the student has at least gotten on the proper path of practice.

Another method of helping students to settle their minds is to give them a kung-an to work on. At the beginning, it is more like reciting a mantra, simply repeating the phrase, over and over. This can help to gather a scattered mind, but it takes a long time before a student can truly work with the kung-an. This is when the kung-an is not a mechanically repeated phrase, but becomes a deeply felt question whose answer has life-and-death urgency, but which cannot be found by reasoning. When this happens, when there is no thought other than the kung-an, the doubt sensation can be generated. Only then can the mind open up for an experience. This stage may be reached naturally after a period of time, or it may come about from suggestions made by the master.

In the Ts’ao-tung sect, neither breathing methods nor kung-an are used in the beginning. Instead, the method called “silent illumination, ” the “method of no method, ” is used. Because the method dispenses with technique, it requires tremendous concentration and energy to penetrate into the fundamental emptiness of the mind. In this method even the mind itself is seen as formless. In Japan, where the sect is known as Soto, this practice is called shikantaza.

By judging the student’s mental state, and knowing when to assign or suggest a method, the master can help the student generate the energy for practice, and help him make progress. With the right conditions, with dedication and hard work under a watchful master, it is possible in seven days to make much progress, even to experience one’s self-nature. To say that getting some experience is very difficult is accurate from the point of view of a struggling student. But there have been people who praticed for decades before getting genuine results. So you should realize that getting an experience can also be very easy;it is just seven days compared to decades. Of course, you should not think that it is too easy.

— Getting The Buddha Mind by Master Sheng-Yen (page 14-16)



To one who has not received the Buddha-mind, it seems very mysterious. Even people who have had a glimpse cannot always recognize it. This recognition cannot be explained, but can only be done by one who has already experienced it at a deep level. A good master has had many deep experiences and frequently can ascertain someone’s level of attainment just by looking at him. Very often affirmation comes through master and disciple asking each other questions, or the disciple describing his experiences to the master. One who has seen self-nature for the first time could not recognize another’s experience, nor is he ready to accept disciples.

The chance of a practitioner getting the Buddha-mind depends on his developing a “great ball of doubt, ” which drives him to diligent and energetic practice.

During retreat the master tries to bring each student to this state of great doubt, for only then is it possible to create an opening through which the Buddha-mind can enter. The Ch’an master will use different methods to do this, according to the student’s state of mind, personality, and accomplishment. So how I deal with a student depends on my sense of the student’s mental state. I call this a spontaneous perception-response. I don’t reflect on how I should deal with each student. I don’t form an idea that one student needs this, another needs that. If it is time to scold or beat, I scold or beat. If it is time to console or encourage, I console or encourage. I am just a mirror. The student’s perception of me is a perception of himself..

— Getting The Buddha Mind by Master Sheng-Yen (page 13-14)


What is it that is transmitted from master to disciple, generation after generation? It is Buddha-mind. When a person has eliminated his vexations, that is called “getting the Buddha-mind.” We also use the phrases “seeing one’s self-nature, ” or “seeing one’s original face.” The person who has entered the Path has done so because he wants to break the endless cycle of suffering. At the moment of enlightenment he is clear of vexation and has received the Buddha-mind. So “transmission” means both that the student has had a Buddha-mind experience and that the experience was recognized by a master. Although it is said that the Buddha-mind has been “transmitted” from Sakyamuni to master to disciple, it is really the disciple who, through faith and practice, has come up with that Buddha-mind. To confirm the transmission, there must be an experienced master who can recognize the student’s achievement. There are not many formal records of Ch’an retreats, but a few famous cases come down from the Sung Dynasty. In one of these, Master Ta-Hui held a retreat in which thirteen out of fifty-three became enlightened. Another master, Yuan-Wu, transmitted to eighteen disciples in one night. This gives you some idea of the power of the Ch’an retreat in the hands of a great master.

Because the traditional retreat had many participants, there was little opportunity to speak with the master. In fact, the master would usually come into the hall only to say a few words. Most disciples would not dare ask for a private interview unless he had an experience he wanted to have affirmed. In modern times, the Ch’an master has been more accessible. In Japan the dokusan, or interview, is actually required by many masters. In any event, it is in the interview that recognition usually takes place. More often than not, the student is not confirmed and sometimes even receives a stinging rebuke or a beating. This is done not to punish but to provoke the student to greater effort or to break through obstructions, and is used by the master according to his perception of the student’s state of mind. To a Ch’an master, even the way a student prostrates can show a presence or lack of genuine achievement.

In Sakyamuni’s time there were disciples who got enlightened but didn’t know it, and others who thought they did, but, in fact didn’t. It was necessary for Sakyamuni himself, or one of his major disciples, to recognize and confirm the disciples. Therefore, to attain the Buddha-mind and to be confirmed are strong reasons for participating in retreats.

— Getting The Buddha Mind by Master Sheng-Yen (page 12-13)


The seven-day retreat, or “Ch’an seven, ” is a practice in which disciples gather for a period of intense meditation under the guidance of a Ch’an master. The attitude of disciples during this period is one of total dedication to the task at hand ─ to shed, at least for a period of time, all the vexations of mind and body, and to bring the mind to a state of supreme clarity.

Since Sakyamuni Buddha, there has been a tradition of setting aside a definite period for deep practice. The aim was to achieve realization within that period. We learn from the Buddhist sutras that there were various periods, ranging from seven days to fourteen, twenty-one, or forty-nine days, always a multiple of seven days. In some cases this period lasted as long as three months. Of course it was only when Buddhism entered China that the term “Ch’an retreat” developed. (The Chinese word ch’an is derived from the Sanskrit dhyana, and the Japanese zen in turn, from ch’an.) In fact, what we call a Ch’an retreat literally means “Ch’an seven.” In the Pure Land sect, the practice of reciting the Buddha’s name for seven days is called “Buddha seven.” Reciting Kuan Yin’s name for seven days was “Kuan Yin seven.” Some people practice repentance ─ prostration for seven days, and that would be “repentance seven.” These are periods when one practices with more dedication and energy than usual, with the goal of achieving significant results.

Why seven days or a multiple of seven days? Our mental states are influenced by our physical states, which in turn are influenced by the cosmos. Nature itself seems to take seven days as a definite period. This concept of seven days is very ancient. It may come from the observation of celestial bodies. In the Bible, God created the world in seven days. In India the seven days were related to the seven planets. In ancient China this period was called “one come-and-go.”

Our body is a small universe, a microcosm, and it tends to reflect the great universe, the macrocosm. Our body and mind seem to demonstrate a cycle of seven days. Thus we take seven days as the optimum period of practice. So we can go on the first seven days, the second seven days, and the third seven days to help us to get onto a smooth and diligent path of practice. In Japan it is called sesshin, meaning “uniting or transmitting, the mind.” This can be interpreted on one hand, as the roshi, or teacher, taking away the student’s vexed mind and enabling him to achieve enlightenment. On the other hand, the student takes the mind from the roshi.

— Getting The Buddha Mind by Master Sheng-Yen (page 11-12)

Day 5 Faith in Self, Faith in Method, Faith in Dharma (page 226-227)

The sun may turn cold and the moon may turn hot.

But the demons cannot destroy the true teaching.

When an elephant marches gloriously forward,

How can a praying mantis bar its way? 

We should have confidence in the Dharma, and we should be willing to do anything to protect it, even though there may be external forces trying to keep us from our practice. External forces may be powerful enough to cool the sun and heat the moon, but determined practitioners do not let them interfere with their practice. Here, on this retreat, we have only hot weather, sirens and firecrackers to distract us. They should not be problems. If you are ready to give up your life for the Dharma, if even the fearsome iron wheel cannot deter you, how can any external force disturb your practice?

The sudden enlightenment teaching is indestructible. Outer path practitioners and Buddhists of the gradual teaching may claim there is no such thing as sudden enlightenment, but criticism cannot destroy the Mahayana sudden enlightenment teaching. External forces that attempt to undermine sudden enlightenment teaching or fetter a determined practitioner are comparable to a praying mantis trying to bar the passage of a marching elephant.

There is a story behind this analogy, dating back to the Spring and Autumn Period of China, several centuries before Christ. A king, riding in a chariot, noticed a praying mantis standing on its hind legs trying to block the wheel of his vehicle. He said, “How can such a small creature stop my chariot? It has no idea how powerless it is.” Outer path and Hinayana practitioners may snipe at Ch’an teachings, but they are not even remotely capable of overthrowing Ch’an Dharma.

— The Sword of Wisdom by Master Sheng-Yen (page 226-227)

Day 5 Faith in Self, Faith in Method, Faith in Dharma (page 225-226)

Even if an iron wheel whirls on your head

Perfectly clear samadhi and wisdom are never lost. 

You cannot cling to the idea that the mani pearl, or wisdom, has concrete existence. However, if you accept and realize “mani pearl” Dharma, then you will never lose the gem. The iron wheel is an ancient weapon ─ a spinning, red-hot wheel with sharp blades that cuts and sears anything it touches. Once you attain the mani pearl, nothing can deter you in your practice, not even this frightening weapon whirling on your head. Again, the pearl symbolizes perfect samadhi and wisdom.

You can interpret these lines another way: Once you accept Buddhadharma and follow its teachings, you should view your practice as the most precious thing in the world, more precious than life itself. Even if the iron wheel hovers over your head, you should not leave the practice or abandon the Dharma.

— The Sword of Wisdom by Master Sheng-Yen (page 225-226)

Day 5 Faith in Self, Faith in Method, Faith in Dharma – page 224-225

I cannot offer you a mani pearl, nor will I explain it to you. You must come to accept the sudden enlightenment Dharma on your own. It takes confidence. If you have the confidence necessary to practice hard, you will be able to accept Ch’an Dharma, and eventually you will reveal the mani pearl of Buddha’s wisdom.

In truth, however, there is no such thing as a mani pearl. Yung-chia clarifies this in the next stanza. 

They clearly see that there is not a thing,

Neither person nor Buddha.

The numerous worlds in the great chiliocosm are bubbles in the sea,

All sages and saints are like lightning flashes. 

In order to progress on the Buddha path, you must accept the Dharma of the mani pearl. On the other hand, you cannot cling to its existence. In fact, you cannot attach to any dharma. If a person follows this teaching and practices hard, he will attain enlightenment and eventually reach Buddhahood. At the beginning of the Buddha path, there must be an individual who accepts the teachings, and who then practices, eventually realizing Buddhahood. But if the practitioner is attached to his existence and cannot let go of the self, reaching Buddhahood will be impossible; if he is not attached to his self, but clings to the idea of Buddhahood, he will also never become a Buddha.

All phenomena are like bubbles in an ocean. They have no genuine existence. What we think are bubbles is only the movement of water. All the worlds in the universe and all the phenomena in this world are like bubbles in an ocean. Everything, including Samsara and Nirvana and sentient beings and Buddhas, is illusory.

All sages, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas are like flashes of lightning. You can see lightning, just as you can witness the power and functions of Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, but if you try to grasp lightning, or attach to the idea that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have concrete existence or self-nature, then you are wasting your time.

We accept that there is a mani pearl, but we should not think that the gem has a definite form or appearance. If it did, it would just be an ordinary pearl. It is precisely because the mani pearl has no definite form that it can generate unlimited power and perform innumerable functions.

— The Sword of Wisdom by Master Sheng-Yen (page 224-225)