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)