The Ch'an teaching

The origin of Zen

Translated from Mandarin into English by Lu K'uan Yü

And into French by Henri Lalo

foreword by Dr Jacques Vigne

Revision of the English Version of this Foreword

 by  Kate Zeiss, Ph.D, Phil

Ch'an is the form of non-dual teaching which was developed in China from the sixth century onwards. This is from this tradition that Japanese Zen was born. The translator into French of the following texts, Henry Lalo, requested me to write its foreword for the French edition; he had read my book The Inner Marriage[1], whose leading thread is non-duality, it may be for this that he thought of me for the foreword. After completing it in French, I realised it could be interesting for English-speaking friends, and so, I translated it.

Ch’an teaching is still alive these days; as a proof of it, one will find in the first volume the texts of Hsu Yun, who passed away in 1959, and who was the master of Lu K'uan Yü, the translator from Chinese into English of the series. Of course, the Buddhist teaching suffered from the Communists in mainland China, but it could continue in Hong Kong and Taiwan. It is an honour for me to write a foreword to these three fundamental books.

Ch'an speaks the "language of the uncreated". The very word Ch'an is interpreted as Tan tao chich ju, “the direct entry of the simple axe”, i.e. the path of sudden awakening. There were, in the second half of the first millennium, five schools of Buddhism in China, including the school of the Pure Land, Ching Tsung and that of Yoga, Mi Tsung, but Ch'an was called directly Tsung, i.e.; the School par excellence. It revolved around the transmission of the sudden awakening. It claims that it is not esoteric, this is attested by the very words of the Sixth Patriarch, Houei Neng, who has been the common source of the five branches of Ch'an : "What has been exposed to you is not esoteric and if you turn your eyes inward, you will see that what you call esoteric is inside."

I will not repeat the useful explanations which Lu Ku’an Yü gives in its introduction. However, having studied for the past eighteen years in the traditional milieu of India, I think I can contribute to the understanding of these texts by underlining the common basis of Indian Buddhism of that time with Ch'an. Many of these parallels may not immediately be visible to the Western reader.

The sudden path of Ch'an is based on an essential paradox, which old generations used to express in this way: "It is easy for the man of this word to reach the state of Buddha which is immediately underlying], but it is really difficult to put an end to erroneous thoughts [which cover on it]." One could say that Ch’an tries to express the Unknowable, but this very phrase deserves to be struck with a stick according to some masters! For, as long as one does not have the direct complete experience of this Unknowable, how and according to which authority can one say that it is Unknowable? One just repeats words which were heard here or there, which means, as the blunt Ch’an phrase puts it, "one just gulps down another's saliva …"

These paradoxes are embodied in the koans: (Chinese kung an), a term whose original meaning is "judgement, decree, that which is authoritative". These are the short phrases of the master in which the disciple must get absorbed until the complete stoppage of his mind occurs. A related notion is the hua t’u, (literally "head" t’u, of word, hua), i.e. a formula whose superior meaning, the head, is sought after. Thus, the very question becomes the path. Once, the master was asked: "What is the shortest path which leads to the wisdom of Buddha?” “ There is no shortest way that this question!"

Even these interrogations are often paradoxical. For instance, in Ch'an as well as in Zen, attention to the “here and now” is much emphasised, however, a hua t’u by master Hui Chueh was : "Don't care!" One of his lady disciples, who had all kinds of miseries, as for instance that her house burned, etc bore them with a philosophical attitude due to her meditation on this instruction, and finally, she reached the non-dual wisdom beyond the pairs of opposites. This reminds us of the instruction of Ma Anandamayi in 20th century India, saying: achintâ param dhyâna, or “ The absence of worries, supreme meditation!"


In reading all these Ch’an texts, the first teaching which comes out strongly, is a lesson of humility: How many seekers, even masters in training, have gotten strikes of the stick from their own master because they believed themselves to have ‘grasped’, while in reality they had not understood anything! There is a big difference between "realising a few things" and realising "the Thing". Houei Neng, the sixth Patriach of Ch’an, was illiterate. Even when the transmission which he had received from his own master at the age of 23 had been widely recognised, he continued to call his listeners "learned friends", for instance, one day, a boy of 15 had come to ask him a few questions. In another case, a youngster was challenging his realisation in a somewhat provocative way by asking him what he was "seeing" or not, i.e., what he had realised or not. He received this answer: "What I see, are the mistakes of my mind; what I do not see, is what is good or bad, right or wrong with others."

Master Tao Tcheu, when he was already 80, used to go from place to place praying to be instructed; however, it is said that "he had been meditating for the past forty years on the word wu (which means "no" or "nothing") without leading a single thought arise"... Eventually, at a very advanced age, he got enlightened. In him is a great example of the deep humility which arises in higher levels of attainment, when one recognises the ultimate goal still eludes one.

After considering various aspects of non-duality in Ch'an teaching, including a few common points with the Advaita of India, we will study, as a second part, the listening to the sound of silence in Ch’an. Quite a few hints of this will be found in the texts quoted below; this method is traditionally related to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Chinese Kannon). He is known as the bodhisattva of compassion who is a widely prayed to in Tibet often through the mantra Om mani padme hum. He is the manifestation of Buddha Amitabha (light, bhâ, which cannot be erased, a-mita), and is related to the very popular movement of Pure Land Buddhism. In order not to close the door to the practitioners of this kind of mantras, the Ch’an masters brought about the hua t’ou, the question: "Who recites Buddha's name?" This quite simple interrogation is a bridge between the path of devotion and that of knowledge, through it and the subject is eventually dissolved in a superior consciousness. In my book The Mysticism of Silence[2], I have discussed the various aspects of the practice of listening to silence according to the main traditions. One should note that in present-day India, there may be about one million of people who practise some form of Ch listening to silence, while living in the word, among whom are especially the members of the Radha-Soami movement.

In the Chandogya Upanishad, there is the praise of Udgîthâ, "the song from above" which is not different from the sound of silence which is recited as a continuous thread, as a kind of subtle Om, and spread in the sky. Tibetans speak of it as the "recitation without recitation". In Bible, Eliah has his a central experience of God "in the sound of a subtle silence" qol, ‘the voice’, demama, ‘of a silence’, daqqa, ‘subtle’. (I Kings, 19, 12). Sufis speak of "the call of the inner minaret" and Saint John of the Cross mentions the musica callada, the "silent music". Sound is directly related to sudden awakening, this is hinted at in the path of Ch’an for instance when it is claimed that realisation can be obtained in a snap of the fingers.

In the third part, we will establish a parallel between the sudden awakening of consciousness about which the Ch’an speaks and the awakening of energy which may be sudden in Yoga and Tantra. By a phrase, a gesture, even sometimes simply by shouting, the master transmits energy to a given disciple for life. In India, this is called shaktîpat, or directly imparting shakti, energy.

The Ch’an teachers were careful to renew their vocabulary to try to prevent their disciples from falling asleep in meditation. Te Ch’ien said for instance: "A ‘good’ phrase is a pole where donkeys may remain tied for a century..." In order to well understand Ch’an, one should try to internally re-create the atmosphere of the hermit-poets of that time, like Han Shan to whom we will return below. Yang Shia for instance, Houei Neng’s direct disciple, went into retreat for some time just after his enlightenment, it seems he wanted to "digest" what had happened to him: "After my great awakening, I dwelled in a quiet retreat under pine-trees located on a high peak to be far away from the world and meditate in a hut. With a light heart, I tasted the quietness of this serene life." Let us remember also that Houei Neng himself spent fifteen years dwelling in a forest after having received the transmission of the fifth Patriarch. In this context of monastic life with regular practices, it was important for the masters to shake their own monks so that they did not ‘fall asleep’ in bigotry: "The master told a story according to which "the Honoured of the world” [the Buddha], after his birth, raised one hand, pointing towards the sky and pointed the other towards the earth, made seven steps forwards, looked at the direction of the four quarters and said: ‘Above and below that heaven, I alone am the Unique Honoured.’" The master added: "Should I have seen him at that time, I would have mowed him down with my stick and I would have given his flesh for the dogs to eat so that peace could prevail in the world." It is difficult to imagine a Christian spiritual master commenting in this way upon the word of Christ saying: "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life"… Basically, this teacher was right by asserting that if one stops having the founders of religions saying that they are absolutely unique, that will favour the peace of the word.

Hsing Zen’s story is equally interesting. He had come to see the sixth Patriarch, and when the latter asked him to present his practices, he answered him: "I didn’t care for the sacred Truths [the Four Noble Truths]." He considered that they were at the level of the progressive path, while he was at the level of sudden awakening. The master certified his viewpoint, and had such a high opinion of him that he appointed him chief of the assembly. Indeed, morbid religiosity can plague some Buddhists just as it affects also members of other religions. They may indefinitely go into circles around the Four Noble Truths, especially the two first : "There is suffering", and "there are the causes of suffering..." Hsing Zen freed himself from all that, and his master greatly appreciated it. The latter asserts that the vehicles, yâna, are not an end in themselves, but are simply there to lead to the destination. So, he was distancing himself from the disputes between Hînayâna, Mahâyâna, Vajrayâna, etc...

Here I would like to share a dream that I have while working on this foreword. Usually, I do not care that much for dreams, but this one seemed to be significant in the context of this work: "I was invited to attend a seminar on Buddhism which was expected to be quite interesting, with many good speakers who were invited. I was late, and in nearing the gates of the hall, I saw many people on stretchers who were evacuated. A few had their faces uncovered and seemed only to be wounded, others had their faces covered by the white sheet and seemed to be really dead. Notably there was a big cart on which was a heap of old ladies visibly dead. When I asked what had happened and if it was a terrorist attack, I was just told: ‘These people attending the lecture were not from the same schools...’"

In every religion, there are many victims of bigotry, and statistically, the old ladies seem to be suffering from it in a more frequent and lasting way, hence the image of my dream. Fortunately, those among these elderly ladies who have a sincere and open practice may also broaden their opinions and succeed finally in seeing things from the viewpoint of the Divine Mother. Not only the words bigot and ego are close in sound, but also in the notions they denote.

Amidst recalling the obscure paradoxes by which Ch’an masters used to awaken their monks from their pious drowsiness, or from their superiority complexes, one should not forget the common sense of Lin Tsi, whose name means simply "the master": "In the hall, the master said: ‘You, monks, should not have erroneous thoughts. Sky is sky, earth is earth, a mountain is a mountain, a brook is a brook, a monk is a monk and a layman is a layman."

While working on this foreword, I could recall the memories of the time of my medical studies, when I was going early morning to the Zen dojo in a busy area of Paris to practice shikantaza, “only sitting” and hear the teaching of Roshi Taisen Deshimaru. It was just before he went back to Japan where he passed away. Hearing about essential realities right at dawn was really a breath of fresh air, before spending rather monotonous days, one should confess, to learn by rote lists of symptoms of diseases or charts of doses of pills to prescribe...Where else could I have heard the commentary of Dogen’s reflection: "Here and now contains eternity"? After that period, Vipassana practice has been instrumental in helping me to concretely deepen Buddha’s teachings, and gave me a much clearer consciousness of relationships between body and mind: these experiences definitely changed my way of approaching medicine and psychotherapy during my years as a psychiatrist. Naturally, eighteen years which have been spent in India in a milieu of traditional teaching and my current life largely in retreat in the Himalayas help me to meet the Ch’an texts like old friends, but also with fresh eyes.


The sudden non-dual awakening, or "how not to confuse host and guest".


In Ch’an terminology, ‘host’ and ‘guest’ represent the two poles around which the sense of discrimination works. One could say that in Vedanta these poles are of the observer and of what is observed. For Shankaracharya, the 7th century ‘master-mind’ of Vedanta, this distinction was essential and he devoted to it a short, but significant book, Drig-drishta-viveka, or "the difference between the observer and what is observed". The pedagogy of masters consists of having the disciple pass from the attitude of the guest, i.e., the identification with all the thoughts which just pass, to that of the innkeeper, which figuratively means the real nature, the fundamental consciousness which watches the coming and going of travellers. One can even distinguish two levels of observation, that of the superior individual consciousness, in Sanskrit buddhi, and that of the universal consciousness. In this case, one can name the latter the “host of the host”. In the same sense, one can speak also of the opposition ‘prince/ minister’. Lin Tsi especially emphasised the need of coming back to the position of the host, and Lu K’uan Yű, in his translation, did not hesitate to speak of the Self. When a master was asked: "What did the Buddha teach all his life?", he just answered: "the teaching of the One."



The koan : "Everything comes back to the One, but to which is the One coming back?" reminds us of the phrase of Upanishads which is often recited at the conclusion of rituals in India: "Om Purnamidam…." "Om, this is the Full... and if one removes the Full from the Full, the Full remains". Ch’an masters were reluctant to use specific terms to name the spirit, lest their disciple may fall into an automatic repetition of them. Finally, they sometimes just use "this, that", what reminds us of course the tat, or “That” of the Upanishads. From time to time, an awakened disciple is called "he who knows that That is". Thus, Yoga is defined by Patanjali first and foremost as the stoppage of the waves, vritti, of the mind. In this sense, one may say that Ch’an as well is based on this Yoga, if understood in this essential way, which goes beyond every pair of opposites. Han Shan says for instance in one of his poems:


If the heart is not agitated by futility

the eternal change will not be able to trouble it

if one understands this

one knows that there is neither back nor face[3].


Closer to us, Hsu Yun said during the last century: "As for the methods which are at our disposal to get rid of erroneous thoughts, there are already many words of Buddha Sakyamuni. What is simpler for instance that the term stop in his phrase: "If it stops, that is enlightenment." When the mind becomes as motionless as a stone, one does not have any more anxieties about the changes of the world; Han-shan, again he, tells us this from the depths of his mountain:


With soft grass as a couch,

and blue sky as a blanket,

happy, the head on a stone,

I let sky and earth continue their changes[4].


Monks were called "mountain-men", interestingly, the combination of the two characters in Chinese also signifies immortality. Practically, this additionally means that the practitioner eventually gets his body to a state as steady as a mountain. The fundamental nature is often compared to space, which corresponds directly to the Vedantic texts wherein the Self is called gagana sadrishan, which means "like the sky". Han-shan again evokes this in a poem which he inscribed on the wall of some cave of the cold mountain (han, cold, shan, mountain):


The five sacred mountains, transformed into dust

Mount Meru, a one-inch mountain,

the vast ocean, a drop of water,

are contained in the field of the heart

where the seed of wisdom grows

it covers the sky of skies.

A piece of advice to those who aspire to Tao;

don't get entangled in the ten worries[5].


From the point of view of modern neurology, we can mention the work of d’Aquili and Neuberg which show in a nutshell that in deep meditation irrespective of tradition, cerebral activity shifts from the centres of the body representation near the area of Rolando (and the side of the head) towards the frontal centres responsible for the consciousness of space. It is interesting to note that this is in the centre of the brow, the âjńa, which is the focus in Yoga for developing the sense of the mystical space, of the ocean of light, etc.[6]


In Vedanta, Self is spoken of as Sat-chit-anand, being-consciousness-happiness. As for Houei Neng, he defined the sambhoga-kâya as "receiving the self, thoughts after thoughts, without losing sight of the fundamental thought [of the real nature, of one's true self]". The fundamental nature which contemplates itself, from moment to moment, generates a sense of wonder. One should remember that sam-bhoga-kâya means ‘body’, kâya, of ‘full experience’, or of full enjoyment, sam-bhoga. One can see that the two notions are close. Besides, Ta means "big, great" in Chinese. For a mystical and poetical ear, Tao could be interpreted by hearing the universal exclamation of wonder in the o, Oh! i.e., Tao would then assume the meaning of "great wonder". Even if this represents an interpretation which is only half scientific, I like it for meditation...

The Indian origin of Ch’an may have be idealised, but still it appears in the following statement: "This dharma is the pure milk from the Himalayas which yields a refined butter..."

The ascetics which gave to the baby Houei Neng his name after his birth have explained it to his parents in this way: Houei means "the doctrine", "dharma", and Neng implies "the one who transmits". In addition, neng means also south, and in Ch’an history, the doctrine of the South has been considered as the sudden doctrine, so it is also in this way that the Chinese of that time could understand the name Houei-Neng. It is interesting to note that he receives the transmission of his master by his own song of liberation, gâthâ, where he asserts that there is no need to clean the dust, because there is no mirror on which this dust could accumulate. However, a long time after the Patriarch’s death, the emperor Hsien Tsoung (806-820) granted him the posthumous title of Ta Chien, "great mirror". So, the question is whether this mirror exists or not... It seems that, even after his departure, the master wanted to point us toward what lies beyond of the pairs of opposites, especially the opposites of ‘non-existence’ and ‘existence’.

The basis of the doctrine of sudden awakening is that this awakening may occur in a snap of the fingers, in one instant. One speaks in Sanskrit of kshanam, which means ‘the moment’, often as brief as the blink of an eye. Although technically, the etymology relates this word to the root kri-, "having free time", for a Sanskrit ear, this term is very close to khsaya, ‘destruction’, so kshanam would be associated to the notion of "destroyer". Each moment destroys the preceding moment; in this sense it has a liberating potential. Ma Anandamayi said there were two fundamental instants, one instant is that of birth which conditions the course of our life in the sense that it launches us into a whole series of circumstances and thus determines our history, and the other is the Instant which destroys time, that of Liberation. She liked to meditate on the simile of the seed and the tree, a symbolism which was equally a basis for the songs of liberation, gâthâs, of many Patriarchs, especially in the Ch’an period. Let us see here this passage of Ma for instance, which parallels the idea of the Patriarchs:


Movement, rest, lose their distinction for the one who sees. Movement… rest…, the seed buried in the earth rests, but at that same moment, the process of germination starts, the movement!

If moving means not resting in one place, how is it that movement and rest coincide? This is so! In the same way, every instant of the growth of the tree is a point of rest and of movement...

As soon as you have found the Self, the whole universe is yours. Just as on receiving a seed, you potentially receive an infinite number of trees, in the same way you should capture the Unique Supreme Instant which, by being realised, will not leave anything which is not realised[7].


The Patriarchs emphasised that the idea of an all-powerful instant should not lead to nihilism, Sanskrit uchedana, which is described as an extreme just as is the opposite belief of an eternal substance. Buddhist Masters were good psychiatrists, because they were quick to discern a hidden depression or a limitation of complete freedom among those who were contemplating the void as void, behind their apparently beautiful speech of complete quietness and of plunging into emptiness, etc. In Yoga, the jada samâdhi, inert samâdhi, is also criticised for the same reasons.

Certainly, there was an influence of the Middle Path, ¨the madhyamika marga of Nâgârjuna’s school (3rd century) on Vedanta, which was codified by Shankarâchârya towards the seventh or eighth century : in it, there is a central conception of the Self as dvandvâtîta, ‘beyond the pairs of opposites’, and so as directly, a limited consciousness resulting in the experience of fulfilment, as a logical result of the Middle Path. We will come back to this topic in the third part on Awakening of Consciousness, Awakening of Energy.

To come back to the core of the question, Ch’an teaches us not to be a bat which flies here and there in the innermost recesses of the cave of the mind, but to become like the eagle which contemplates the sun directly. An indication of this resides in the interpretation of a dream of master Kouei Shan to test two of his advanced disciples who were serving him: he told them a kind of vision which he had had recently and asked them their interpretation. The first disciple brought him a vessel of water with a round shape; the second a bowl of tea which was also round. He certified their right understanding, seeing in their gestures as clear as a pictogram, the evocation of the circle of unity, this unity which had manifested itself in the dream. This anecdote shows that the deepest interpretation of dreams relates them directly to the Absolute. Often disciples believe that they have found the “jackpot". The role of the Ch’an master with his strikes of stick is to break these transitory "jackpots", until the real Jack come out of the pot... Subject and object are like specks of dust, as are space and time equally, when the Great Consciousness reveals itself, they just do not have any more raison d'ętre.



Houei Neng obtained the awakening when he heard his master, the fifth Patriach, reading to him, during the night, the Diamond sutra (vajra-cheddika prâjńâ-paramita sutra) and reaching this sentence: "One should develop a spirit which does not dwell anywhere". In the hermitage under the pine-trees were I live, I read every day a verse from the Bhagavad-Gita. The very day when this mode of awakening of Houei Neng came to my knowledge, the verse of the Gita which I read was this one:


He whose spirit is not attached anywhere (asakta budhi sarvatra), who has conquered himself and come beyond the impurity [of his identification with the senses], due to renunciation reaches the supreme Perfection which does not generates karmas. (18,49)


We find the same message after a millennium and at a distance of thousands of kilometres. Ma Anandamayi goes also in this sense when she says :


What can you reach which is not already here? Everything which was found will be lost again. In order to prepare oneself for the revelation of That which is eternally, instructions, various paths etc are available. But don't you see that every trail has an end? In other terms, you should concentrate on this idea which sweeps away every other, and, once arrived beyond every idea, you will find the revelation of That which you are eternally[8].

If those who practise non-duality cannot go beyond bigotry, who will succeed in doing so? Houei Neng seems to have had his experience of the One beyond all. This is apparent in the way he presents the tri-sharanam, the triple refuge of Buddhism:


Learned friends, we surrender to the Enlighented One, the most honoured among beings with two feet [i.e. who is beyond every duality] and we rest in him.

We surrender to the Right One, the most honoured free from every desire and we rest on him.

We surrender to the Pure One, the most honoured in the Order and we rest on him.


The Soto Zen school has widely spread in the West during the last several decades. Two masters were at the origin of it, Tsao Shan and Tshong Shan, they were coming respectively from the mountains of Tsao and Tsong, hence the Chinese name of the school, Tsao Tsong which in Japanese became ‘Soto’. During his wandering search at the beginning, the young Tshong Shan reached the hermitage of the old sage Iun Ien. There, he obtained a satori, became his disciple and asked him the following question before leaving: "After your nirvâna, if someone asked me: "Could you still describe the reality of your master?", what should I answer?" Iun- Ien said : “You should answer: ‘only this is.’" Tsong Shan remained silent for a long time, and Iun Ien added: "By pursuing this work [the seeking of one's own nature], the venerable friend should be very vigilant."

At the end of this part on the only one Reality beyond every opposite comes to my mind this poem of conclusion of Han Shan’s book, which he must have cut in the wall of some cave in his solitary mountain:


Master Han Shan

ever thus

dwelling alone

neither alive nor dead


The Question: "Who Listens? ", A Koan for Sudden Awakening


There is a famous question: "Who recites Buddha’s name?" We saw that this was one of the method by which the Ch’an masters had to lead the practitioners from the devotional path of the Pure Land, for instance, towards the path of knowledge: these devotees, since their very childhood, had recited Budha’s name as often as possible to that extent that it had become as a continuous sound stream in them. Upon this question, they could take advantage of their past training but still come back to themselves and so were able to put into question the firm existence of the subject who was reciting. When they had a tendency to fall asleep due to the monotony of recitation, it was this very question which would wake them up. So, they could directly shift towards the path of knowledge. This is a simple method which was explained to me as well by quite traditional Vedantis in India.

Hsu Yun introduced this practise as a synthesis of various schools of his time, i.e. during the first half of the 20th century in China. Its origin is attributed to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in the Surangama Sutra. It is the very method that Manjushrî chose when Buddha asked him method of complete enlightenment he preferred. It was not that surprising if one knows that another name of Manjushrī is Manju-svara, he whose ‘voice’, svara, is ‘sweet’. Indeed, which voice could be sweeter than that of silence? (There is near Mount Kailash in Tibet an mountain called Manju Parvat, the "sweet Mountain", one could see in this name a hint to the whispering of silence which, when it is perceived with a good continuity inside, directly leads to the top of the states of Shiva or Buddha, which is symbolically indicated by the Kailash.) There is a continuous transition between listening to a mantra in a subtler and subtler way and the perception of the sweet whispering of silence. At that time, the mind stops easily. This is interpreted in different terms within different traditions: the group of the Radha-Soamis and the bhakti schools of India will speak of union with the Guru who gave initiation to the mantra and to the listening of the sound of silence, shabd-dhun; in Transcendental Meditation, one will evoke the experience of the Unified field and in Buddhism, one will rather speak of going beyond the dualities of subject-object.

It is mentioned in Yoga that ajapa-japa, this state where a mantra is no more repeated, but where one hears it repeating itself automatically, is not different from the awakening of kundalini. In this case, breathing becomes hyper-conscious. It is often said that direct observation of breathing is pacifying, and it is true for beginners: but a time comes where it becomes really stimulating, it is as if a tidal power station was starting to work, with the capacity to capture the energy of these ebbs and flows which inspiration and expiration are.

Moreover, the monotony of the inner sound favours pauses at the end of the expiration, in a complete state of receptivity. This experience is indeed related to the three parts of this foreword: first there is a non-dual experience beyond subject and object, because when the subject wonders: "Who am I?", an inescapable answer seems to be: "I am the one who breathes!" However, when this breathing itself stops, the evidence collapses naturally. In this instant of breathing pause, a full absorption in the listening to sound is possible; this is the subject of the second part; besides, there is also an awakening of energy and of consciousness of which we will speak in the third part.

We have seen that in mantra repetition, especially when we reach a stage where it comes on its own, this question "Who is reciting it?" Or "Who listens to what is reciting itself on its own?" has an awakening effect. We have also seen that this kind of question in Chinese is called hua t’u, a notion close to that of koan. We could translate this world by ‘fore-thought’, but also by ‘fore-hearing’: “The hua t’u means also turning back the power inwardly to listen to the real nature, so that the spirit "subject" extracts itself from external objects." This "fore-sound", this Sound before sounds is not different from the whispering of silence.

Let us listen now to what Avalokitshvara says of these methods in the sutra:


"At the beginning, by directing the hearing power (the ear)

in the current of meditation, this organ becomes detached from his object."


Lu K’uan Yű comments in this way: "These methods consist of turning the hearing inside, towards the real nature to hear it so that the six senses do not go astray outside to contact the six external objects. Such is the collection of the six senses in the nature of Dharma." From there, Avalokitshvara continues:


"By rejecting the concept of sound and of engaging into the current,

both agitation and calmness have become clearly nonexistent"…

"thus progressing step-by-step, both hearing and its object reach their end.

But I did not stop where sound ended.

When the consciousness of the state and the state itself were perceived as nonexistent,

the consciousness of emptiness became all inclusive

after the elimination both of the subject and the object related to emptiness.

Then, the disappearing of both creation and annihilation

Came to the state of nirvana which became manifest."


The hearing power and its object which reach their end evoke the dissolution in the sound of silence. However, that may induce a drowsiness, and we have seen that to wake up, one may pose the question: "Who listens to the sound of silence?" At that time, one really merges into the non-dual consciousness. After reaching this stage, the bodhisattva Avalokitshvara said:


Suddenly, I jumped both beyond the mundane and the supramundane planes and realised an all-including clarity penetrating the ten directions..."


The insight into sound is in itself a sudden phenomena : if we are not attentive, it disappears from our consciousness, if one listens carefully, it suddenly appears. It may have been to hint at this fact that Master Hsu Yun, to conclude a week of meditation where he had taught these methods, started to strike a piece of wood, saying: "The wooden fish of wood is struck, the bowl jumps up!" In Ch’an monasteries, the wooden fish is struck to call the community to the dining hall. So, there is a definite delay between this sound and the time when the monks start to take their bowl to eat. Unlike in this outward and common reality, however, the inner perception of the subtle sound makes immediately available "the experience which nourishes".

A master says : "While the bird sings and the flowers blossom, the moon reaches the current." This can be understood as an allusion to the realisation in the current of daily life, but one can also see there an indication of the full consciousness (moon) of the current of inner sound even when there are outer noises, such as the bird which sings.

A Ch’an sage said : "There is an echo in every word and a sword [of wisdom] in every aphorism." The perception of echoes which are subtler and subtler leads to the experience of fundamental sound. To perceive it really clearly, a perfect immobility of the body is required, hence those classical similes in Ch’an: in the log of dry wood, the dragon thunders, the wooden horse neighs, the earthen ox fallen in a river starts bellowing, etc This is as if the thought of wisdom strikes a gong within oneself; its vibration corresponds to the spiritual experience and its dissolution in silence, to the intimate link which we can establish between the explicit thought of the beginning and Reality.

We have already quoted one Han Shan, the poet and hermit from the second half of the first millennium, but there was also another Han Shan, who was a 16th century Ch’an master in China. He reached sudden awakening by meditating on the sound of silence in the Mountain of the Five Peaks, a famous place of pilgrimage devoted to the bodhisattva Manjushri. We have seen that he was related to the sound of silence by his other name Manju-svara. This is symbolic. The five peaks may evoke the sources of the five senses: when one succeeds in stabilizing the consciousness even more inside these sources, only then, one’s own nature of bodhisattva may be revealed, which means that one develops the purity, sattva, of consciousness, bodhi. This method was fundamental for Han Shan, one can see this by looking at his commentary of the Forty Songs of Realisation, gâthâs, of the Patriarchs[9]. He speaks about it right from the explanation of the first gâthâs, although this one does not directly speak of sound.

A monk asked his Master: "With what should the man of Tao to deeply intimate, in order to obtain the capacity of perpetual hearing, even without specifically listening to something?" The Master answered: "Both are under the same blanket." He was probably indicating that when one has obtained the perpetual hearing of the sound of silence, subject and object are under the blanket of the same unique consciousness.

It is said in the sutras that all the dharmas proclaim the Dharma with a strong voice. There, one can see a hint to the meditation of the silent whispering of nature as a resonance of the Absolute. There is a play on words between dharma which means object, and the Dharma which signifies the Right Law. The common point between the two is that they are indeed the manifestations of the same reality, of what it is. Dhar- means ‘to bear’ (see fere in Latin), so, dharma has a general meaning of what is supported, object or reality.

The fundamental sound is probably one of the possible interpretations of this somehow enigmatic sentence of Master Tsong Chan, the founder of Soto-Zen : "Although the esoteric Dharma is not on the worldly plane, it is not completely new."

In the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment which is translated at the end of the third volume, the triad samathâ, samâpatti and dhyâna is emphasised. Samathā means ‘complete equality, pacification’, samâpatti means ‘encounter, coincidence’, and dhyâna of course ‘meditation’. In the meaning given by the sutra, samathâ corresponds to the direct concentration on emptiness which gives a complete pacification, to immobility, while samâpatti hints at the perception of this same emptiness, but in the lap of phenomena, and so to movement, and dhyâna is a middle path, which enables one to go beyond these opposites. Once applied to auditory perception, samathâ represents the sound of silence as such, when it is perceived fully surrounded by quietness, samâpatti to the perception of this same sound of silence, but underlying all the noises of the world, and dhyâna to the overtaking of these opposites in a fully non-dual consciousness which Avalokitesvara represents, as we have seen. This is "the meditation of the middle", Madhya-dhyâna, one would like to be able to coin a new word madhyâna

This corresponds in Yoga to the perception of the sound in the middle axis, as the murmur of the continuous jet of a fountain. By passing through an energy channel, prâna produces a sound, just as water in a pipe. The trunk of the body becomes then as a cello with the single chord, whose vibration fills all space. Ryôkan, a late Zen master, seems to suggest this sound of silence in his phrase "the koto without chords", the koto being the chord instrument which was most wide-spread in Japan at that time. We could say that Ryôkan, at the same time with Soto-Zen in which he had been trained, used to also practice “Koto-Zen”… Another evocation of the central axis where sound energy goes up, is the flute. Lin Tsi probably suggests it in the following two verses :


When the autumn breeze plays on the flute of jade,

Which intimate friend appreciates the melody?


This comes to the same question "Who listens?" about which we spoke before. One could also say that when the wind of detachment (the autumn, this is when dry leaves blow away in the wind) passes in an impersonal way through the purified body-mind complex (the jade), the inner sound becomes very distinctly perceived, and it occupies all space. One wonders if there is still someone to listen to it. The subject is no more dissociable of the object, he has no longer any niche, alcove, geode where he could take shelter to observe the sound while being protected from it, inasmuch he is fully absorbed in the sound.

Elsewhere, a Chan master has an interesting paradoxical reflection: "One cannot know the dharma told by inanimate objects except when the voice is heard by the eyes." For those who are acquainted with Indian techniques, this directly suggests the practice of listening to the inner sound in the area of the third eye, area which is called the tenth door which comes in addition to the nine natural orifices. We have mentioned in the introduction that there are about one million Indians these days who practice in this way. In the tradition of the Pure Land, it is said that only in the paradise of the West, inanimate objects are able to proclaim the Dharma. But the Master takes this experience of paradise back within the body, here and now, and what enables this miracle to happen, is the direct and continuous perception of inner sound.

Han Shan has two poems which link ascension by the central axis and inner sound in a picturesque way:


I climbed the pass of Han Shan

the path which has no end

long torrents of stones and rocks

wide brooks with thick grass

the moss slips, however no rain

the pine trees buzz, however no wind

who will disentangle oneself from the load of the world

to come and sit with me in the white clouds?


After following the torrent upstream (the classical symbol of the central axis), the meditator reaches the upper area of the third eye where vibrates the sound of silence, where “ the pine-trees buzz, however no wind".

In the second poem, the symbolism is similar, with, in addition, a hint to the fact that the entrance into the central axis makes consciousness jump beyond time:


Summer and fall

the secret torrent ceaselessly murmurs

in the high pine trees the wind blows, blows

during half-a-day, seated,

I forget hundred years of sadness.


Without exaggeration, one could say that the one who is able to really remain seated, stock-still during half a day, has already some experience of the consciousness beyond time...

One can find in the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment another evocation of the link between the central axis and the perception of the inner sound: “Although these advanced practitioners are staying in the phenomenal world, they are like the sound of a musical instrument reaching far away; [this pair of opposites which is] mental agitation, klesha, and nirvana cannot disturb them any more." The pairs of opposites are embodied in the left and right side of the body, what goes beyond these is the central axis. It is usually advised to concentrate on a very subtle sound: this is related to what we just said, in this way, one gets the impression that it comes from very far away and so, our sphere of consciousness is broadened. A little further in the sutra, it is said that the concentration on the middle, dhyāna, is calm and without passion like the sound of an instrumental music. In Yoga, they say that this is subtle energy, prâna, which produces the inner sound by gushing through the channels, just as water creates a whispering by passing through a pipe. Perhaps it is a fine tuning to subtle sound that has inspired Buddha’s images ( murti ) to be depicted with such long ears, likely a sign of his capacity to clearly perceive the fundamental sound? Among the great bodhisattvas, one of them is called "the one who can discriminate the sound". This designation would not have any meaning in the case of ordinary sounds, because it would simply mean that the bodhisattva was not deaf. So, what is at stake is the subtle, fundamental sound.


On Ashoka’s pillar in Sarnath, there are four lions, each roaring towards one of the four quarters of space. This is the very symbol of Buddha’s teaching, a sound which fills space until its end. This is such a strong sign that it has been chosen by Nehru and his colleagues as the symbol of the government of India. In spite of this image of lions to impress the masses, Subhuti, an advanced disciple of the Tathagata, said: "I listened to the silent teaching of Buddha by closing my ears."...

There is no question of disqualifying the practice of generating outer sound, through the repetition of sutras or mantras for instance. Houei Neng said concretely that by repetition, "a time comes when the spirit gets united to the mouth". He advised, in a quite poetic manner, to a seeker who was complaining of reciting the Lotus Sutra too mechanically: "If you are convinced that Buddha’s teaching is without words, then from your mouth, a lotus will blossom ". Mechanically repeating makes us go around in circles within the sutra, but when consciousness wakes up, especially to the inner sound, to the “letterless sutra”, then this ordinary sutra starts turning around us.

To know more about this listening to silence, especially in Buddhism, I refer the reader who can read French to my last book La mystique du silence[10]. Ma Anandamayi said: "There is a sound which, once heard, makes us lose the desire of hearing any other sound". Towards the end of his life, Bodhidharma asked his disciples what they had realised. The last to be questioned was Eka, who just remained standing silently before him. The Master praised his attitude and said : "You have reached the marrow of my bones".

Master Guixi, a predecessor of Master Dogen, was asked: "What is the door of silence?" He just answered: "Don't make noise".

On reaching the end of this section, the reader will probably realise that one cannot consider listening to the sound of silence as a peripheral practice in Buddhism, even if it is not always directly explained as central. Does one not term the global transmission of

Buddha beyond the differences of schools, as the teaching of the "unique Voice", or of the "unique Sound"?


Sudden awakening of energy, sudden awakening of consciousness


In Ch’an, there is a clear conception of what is in India called shaktîpat, i.e., literally the "fall of energy", the sudden transmission of energy from master to disciple. In Chinese, it is called Ta Yung, “ the Great function", that means the gesture, the word or even the shouting of transmission. This phrase "the Great function" is well deserved, because it is this very capacity to transmit energy which characterises the Master.

Yun Men was known for his laconic answers, often of one word. One day he was asked: "What is there in something abstruse?" He answered: "a passage". During this initiation, master and disciple become like two mirrors which look at each other. Regarding this, it is interesting to note that the names of the fifth and sixth Patriarchs are seen to mirror, or to echo one another, respectively Houang Mei and Houaei Neng.

Masters awaken the inner energy by using formulas like shock-waves. They often call them "creepers"; they are not much in comparison with the tree of the real experience, but they indicate as clearly as possible its location. In Yoga, the tree corresponds to the axis, to the central passage in which ascending energy rushes, and the side channels are circling around it like a spiral, or even like the double spiral. They evoke the secondary channels of energy, prâna, and of mind, manas, which are inevitably attracted by the central axis, like stars by a black hole. Once they are absorbed into it, they induce a jump of consciousness, a "quantum leap" beyond the usual space.

There are three factors which shape the conception of the subtle body that a given culture has, in my opinion:

- The direct and explicit transmission of knowledge, with a corpus of practices, etc, as in Yoga, tantric Buddhism or Taoism.

- The role of archetypes, such as this simile of the creeper which directly evokes the gravitation of the consciousness around the axis of the essential, and from the viewpoint of the subtle body, around the central axis.

- The subtle physiology as such, based on body physiology. It is obvious, but wise to mention that pelvis is pelvis and head his head, whatever the culture. We have developed these points in our book Le mariage intérieur[11]

It should not be believed that Ch’an or Zen only recommends a descent of energy into the hara. First, one may note that, in the modern Chinese school of Lu K’uan Yü for instance, one recommends the concentration on the point in between the navel and the end of the sternum. It is said that concentration on hara has a tendency to bring back thoughts of samsara; one should not see here an occasion of religious war between schools. One must understand that these centres of concentration are only springboards, diving boards enabling us to make a “swan dive” beyond both body and mind: at that time, consciousness is no more physical but omnipresent in space, all-pervading. In India, the one who has develops this consciousness is called Parma-hamsa, "the greats swan". When we are really absorbed into the point, there is no more point. Before reaching this level, let each person follow the method of his school, to which he is habituated.

Besides, in classical Soto-Zen, it is often said: "Pushing the asked with the knees, pushing the sky with the head". So there is a double movement of energy, one ascending and one descending, provoking a stretching of the spine and from the subtle point of view, an opening of the central axis: this is what is sought.

Tibetans are experts in making the link between the Buddhist path of awakening and the Yoga of the subtle body. During a seminar in Sarnath in the end of 1999 on "Purna and Shunya", "Fullness and emptiness", I had asked to Samthong Rimpoche [at that time he was the director of the Tibetan Institute of Sarnath, and later became the first Prime Minister to be elected in the Tibetan government] if one could consider that the middle path (madhyamika of Nâgârjuna) included also the Yoga of the absorption in the middle axis of the body. He answered me: "Quite so". The present part is somehow the development of this idea.


Regarding this, one can mention that Nāgārjuna is classified among the Patriarchs of the Ch’an transmission before the Chinese period, the fifteenth exactly after the Buddha. His very name means shining, arjuna cobra, nâga. It would be difficult to find a name which evokes the awakening of kundalini in a clearer way, although the master does not seem to speak of it directly in his quite rigorous metaphysics. In this context, we can mention here yet another Yun Men’s short answer to a question: "Is there still in someone sin when no thought arises?" "Mount Sumeru". Mount Sumeru represents the axis mundi, the stability of the Absolute, and in the body, the central axis. By the way, in Sanskrit, the spine is called merudand, "the stick of Meru". When no thought arises, consciousness flows through the central axis, it is completely steady and there is no more risk of sin. In Buddhism, the central axis is often referred to in terms of the bodhi-tree.

Houei Neng speaks of his own path as the Diamond path, we can again feel that we are not far away from Tibetans with their superior path which they called Vajrayâna, which translates as the Diamond path as well. We can mention here too that in Yoga, the central axis is composed of three concentric sheaths whose innermost one is called vajra. Tibetans does not take Yoga practices as an aim in themselves, but as a series of "skilful means" to reach awakening. One should also realise that the Ch’an spread in China at the same time with tantric Buddhism spread in Nepal and at the border of Tibet- with Padmasambhava for instance- towards the 6th, 7th and 8th century AD , so a certain amount of influence is quite likely.



In Sanskrit, the term madhya, "middle" is close to medas which means "the marrow" and medha, signifying "intelligence" as well as "sacrifice". When the current of sensations regularly flows in the marrow of the central axis, the secondary channels are in some sense sacrificed and genuine intelligence is awakened. In Latin also, one can find the same kind of similarity of roots: one could say that when meditation is absorbed in the middle axis, one can find the true medicine for the sufferings of the mind... In Yoga and Tantra, the awakening of kundalini is classically described as a progressive phenomenon of gradual ascent from chakra to chakra, but this does not exclude the subtle aspect of this

process: just as fruit gradually ripens for months, but finally gets detached in a second, even so an inner experience may be prepared for years but occurs suddenly. A nine-month pregnancy leads finally at the time of labour and to an expulsion of the baby in a few seconds. For the sudden awakening, the intervention of the master can be a decisive factor, but it can on also come from an apparently trivial outer happening, this is what Buddhists call in their technical language "concurring circumstance". It may be, according to well-known anecdotes, the foot which tumbles on a stone, a pebble which strikes a bamboo, or the bottom of the bucket which suddenly drops out emptying the water in an instant.


The Buddhist tradition distinguishes ten stages, dasabhűmî, before reaching the level of bodhisattva, and the tenth is Yoga: this proves that the Buddhist Mahayâna tradition takes this knowledge seriously. In China as well, Taoism had a precise vision of the subtle physiology which was not fundamentally different from that of Tantrism. In Chinese texts, the Absolute is spoken of as the Tao and advanced Buddhist practitioners are honoured with the title of Tao as well.

One compares the right attitude of the spiritual seeker to that of someone who has fallen in a deep well and has only one idea, coming out of it. This reminds us of the goddess Kundalini jailed in the pelvis and who has only one aspiration, that of ascending to the head where she will be able to unite with her husband Shiva.

It is said in the texts in a rather roundabout way: "The nature of Dharma reveals the middle, which is the reality of the shining spirit

of the wonderful enlightenment of the state of Buddha". To put it simply, what does the spirit, the shining breath which reveals the middle, evoke, but the energy of kundalini? When it is right, it is a kind of sudden process: "The accession to this middle allows them to enter nirvana without rising from their seats".

Regarding the central axis, we may risk an interpetation of the story of the sixth Patriarch, Houei Neng, who wanted to wash the robe he had inherited from his master. As he could not find really pure water in the monastery, he went away and after 5 miles, he reached a lush wood and entered it; he raised his stick towards the sky, and planted it in the earth. From there a stream of water came out which finally created a pond in which he was able to soak and wash the robe of his master.

There is already in this story a direct reference to the real life of Houei Neng, who received the transmission of the fifth Patriarch in spite of a strong opposition of the monastery: he had to leave it at night and to take shelter in a forest for sixteen years. The good side of this was that he could integrate the knowledge he got from this transmission far removed from the quarrels of the clans of monks in his community of origin. From the symbolic point of view, going five miles away from the monastery means going beyond the five senses related to the physical body. There, one enters the "lush wood", i.e. the awakened subtle body. By "pushing the sky with the head, and the earth with the knees", one stretches the central axis, this is the meaning of raising the stick towards the sky and planting it in earth. From there comes the inexhaustible energy of the direct experience which allows to soak and wash the robe, which means to purify the mind in the water of the experience.

In Ch’an, one can often find the simile of "making a step from the top of a one-hundred feet high mast to reach the peak": the idea is not to fall asleep in an experience even if it is a rather high one, but to be able to take "the swan dive" towards one’s real nature beyond body and mind. A master expresses this clearly: "One step from the top of the hundred-feet high mast, and your own body manifests throughout the universe". Practically, the hundred-feet high mast may correspond to energy which has already arisen to the level of the third eye, from there, it is easier to swing beyond body, to dive into the Ocean of light, the great emptiness, etc

Let us now consider the awakening of the third eye in Ch’an tradition in a more detailed way: it is said: "The hero uses his sword of wisdom whose ‘point’, prajńâ, (wisdom), emits the light of ‘diamond’, vajra. This world is on the central axis, and its point is the third eye which is in Yoga called âjńâ chakra.

Lin Tsi, -let us recall that this name just signifies "the master"- evokes the awakening of the third eye in a simile which is astonishing in its strength and freshness: "There is a true man in a given position [the fundamental spirit] which enters and comes out through your forehead. I invite those who have not experienced it to try to see it." Simple and direct…

The Yoga tradition criticises those who use the kechâri mudra (the tip of the tongue retroflexed towards the uvula] only to enter in an inert samâdhi, for instance to be buried alive for several months. As spectacular as it may appear to ordinary people, that has no effect on spiritual awakening. The same criticism is found from Ch’an masters regarding monks who felt satisfied enough to stick their tongue against the palate, and dwell in a superficial state of well being which they consider wrongly as the Awakening. In Yoga, the kechâri mudra is practised along with concentration on the third eye. This remark of the Ch’an master is an indirect acknowledgement that these techniques may have been in practice at that time in their monasteries.

The awakening of a chakra is classically compared in Yoga to the blossoming of a lotus. In China, they speak of "the flower which blossoms on this dry log", the latter suggesting the body which is completely motionless in deep meditation. It is said of Maitreya, the coming bodhisattva who is usually represented laughing, that he got illumination under the "tree with the flower of dragon"; in yogic terms, one would say that he has got a central axis whose upper chakra, the third eye, has opened.

In my opinion, one should also understand the phrase " Jump above the Gate of the dragon" in the same sense. When one feels drowsy in meditation, the head bends, an energy accumulates in the throat and in the anterior part of the thorax. Moreover, the body bends to the side while the mind goes downward as well. When one corrects oneself by stretching the neck, which means by putting the chin in and "pushing the sky with the head", energy strongly comes back towards the third eye, and even jumps beyond into space. It is in this way that one can understand the phrase "jumping above the Gate of the dragon". It is said in Tantric texts that if energy reaches the area below the third eye, there is the risk that it will be transformed into anger and egoism, while the superior part of his area corresponds to the Paramâtma, to the Supreme. It may be for this reason that the phrase uses the word above and not through.

It is also said in texts: "The myriads of thoughts which arise dwell in nâga-samâdhi". We have seen that nâga means "cobra", in Sanskrit, but that Chinese people translate it by "dragon". When the myriads currents of sensation which usually agitate the body gets stabilised, they are absorbed in the central axis, and at that very time, there is samâdhi. Nâga was also one of the epithets of Buddha, he is the Nâga par excellence, i.e. the one who mastered the energy of the central axis, in comparison with the secondary nâgas which correspond to the currents that are on the side, diffused, i.e. undisciplined. Buddha’s iconographic representation shows that he is protected by a canopy of 5,7 or 9 nâgas. In the same sense, it is said that he has got the realisation, the final awakening of kundalini at the foot of the bodhi tree. Indeed, in India, since ancient times, people like to install at the foot of big trees stones with carved nâgas, often two of them intertwined in a double spiral and which kiss each other at the top. Those stone carvings evoke the Divine and the spiritual awakening by the union of the channels. This is a symbol which was already found in the ancient civilisation of Sumer.

It is mentioned in the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment that the small girl Nâgakanâ got the sudden awakening when she was only eight, just as she heard the teaching of the Bodhisattva Manjushri. There is a clear symbolism behind this: the number eight is half sixteen, the number of fullness. The goddess Kundalini, when she is still coiled in the basin, remains as if in a state of infancy, half-fulfilled. But when she hears the "sweet voice", (Manju-svara, another name of Manjushri as we have already seen), she awakens and goes up to unite with him at the level of the third eye. It is said indeed that one usually meditates on the inner sound in the third eye and that one directs there the energy which comes up from the bottom of the body. In classical Hindi poetry, this ascent is compared to the procession of the young bride which leads her to the house of her spouse, who dwells in the area of the third eye. Thus, the union of the ascending attention and the inner sound becomes the real love story... one can mention this that in Latin writing, the number 8 may be seen as two nâga ofs standing and united.

At the end of the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, it is said that the nâgas and the devas which had come to listen to the teaching of Buddha finally obtained enlightenment. Nâgas, be they represented as cobras or dragons, go forth crawling and suggest in this way the tortuous and tortured currents of sensations which are at the basis of mind agitation. They are perceived in a state of semi-consciousness; in this sense, there is a mix of light and darkness, but when one has them converge towards the centre of light, they start fully shining and become in themselves as many "shining cobras", "nâg-arjunas".

Fabienne Verdier worked for a long time with Chinese masters of calligraphy, she speaks about these artists of Chinese tradition who work all their lives with the hope to "see the smoke of the dragon"; some of them even burn their works to be able to do so. If the dragon represents the coiled cobra of kundalini, the smoke of it evokes consciousness which comes out of it: it exits with fire from its mouth, i.e. from the third eye of the body of the meditator. This process is only possible when there is a full detachment from ego, that which is evoked by the artist who burns his own works.

This energy of the dragon which comes up from tail to head is also alluded to in the words hua t’u and hua wei, respectively "head of word" and "tail of word". When one speaks automatically, words come out by themselves from the mouth, and one grasps only the “tail” of them. On the contrary, deep consciousness reveals to us the "head of words". From the viewpoint of subtle physiology, instinctive energy is situated in the jaw, while spiritual energy accumulates at the top of the head. In a symbolic image, one could visualize a bird inside the skull, perched on the jaws and which looks backwards, with its feet at the level of the jaws themselves and its head at the level of the vortex. Meditating on a koan, a hua t’u means lifting the energy of consciousness from the tail of this bird toward its head, which means from the mouth toward the top of the body.

When the practitioner gets a realisation on the path, it is said that "the king-dragons become his servants". Usually, the currents of sensations which form the basis of our agitated mind governs us as if they were our kings. But when one is successful in guiding and gathering them towards a centre, they become our servants. This symbolism is quite clear in Thailand. For instance, the monumental flights of stairs at the entrance of the temples have their railings in the shape of dragons, which suggests that these ones, if mastered, lead us to the nature of Buddha.

In the statues of Buddha himself, as for instance the one which is the object of the large pilgrimage of Pitsanulok, in the centre of Thailand, there are currents of flames like dragons coming up from the elbows of the Tathagata on both sides of the arms and uniting at the top of the head. This clearly suggests the confluence of the currents of energy in the superior part of the central axis.


A koan on which one meditates in Ch’an is "the dragon which thunders inside the dried log". The dragon evokes the cobra of kundalini and the log the central axis of the body - just as the shivalingam- we are close to the archetypal symbol within Shaiva temples in Hinduism with the cobra coiled around and its head on top. For obvious practical reasons, it is difficult to represent the cobra inside the lingam, but one could also visualise it in this way, because it may be associated either with the trunk of the body or with its central axis.

Now, we know enough about the dragon to be able to better understand a founding story of Ch’an, indeed the only one to be told by Houei Neng at the beginning of the Sutra of the Stage. When the sixth Patriarch settled down in the monastery of Pao Lin (whose name means "precious wood"), there was a dragon in a pond opposite the meditation hall which much disturbed the monks. He mastered him by catching him in his bowl, then he had the pond filled and a stupa erected on that spot.

Symbolically, the pool of water opposite the hall of meditation represents the mirror of the mind agitated by the movements of the vital energy, the dragon. This vital energy must reduce to reasonable size to be made manageable, which is possible by detachment, symbolized by the begging bowl of the monk, one of his only possessions enabling him to collect alms. At that time, consciousness does not waste any more of its energy in the pond of desires, but becomes steady in the central axis; it becomes a monument of praise (it is the original meaning of the word stupa) to the fundamental Nature. Another meaning of stupa is "pyre", and this goes well with the image of the flames of the central axis which consume the remains of the ego which has just died...The dragon is also a symbol of the Chinese people and of their vitality. Houei Neng, through his teaching, could capture this dragon-vitality and direct it towards the absolute according to the Buddhist path. The dragon is also an important parts of the New Year celebrations. It denotes the strength of the time which glides away. By attracting it in his inert bowl, the Patriarch indicates the stillness of nirvana consciousness, as a kind of celestial vault beyond the passing of time.

I am writing this foreword in a hermitage in the middle of the woods; this is somehow my Pao Lin, my "precious wood", because any place where one can make a good practice rightly deserves the name "precious".

The stick of the Master himself is a precious wood, because it enables him to discipline the tigers. It is told that one day, two tigers were fighting to death. The Master came with a stick and succeeded in separating them. Human beings are the object of the conflicts of the pairs of opposites which are sometimes so violent that they can lead to suicide. But if we have the mastery of the stick, i.e., of the central axis which transcends the duality of left and right, and through this all the dualities, the tigers of inner conflicts stop fighting. The stick and the bowl are the symbols of the monk, especially of his detachment, and the inner freedom coming from it allows us to go beyond dualities.

We have already alluded several times to the ascent of energy. Now we may mention a few words of Ch’an masters which evoke it in a more direct way. The following dialogue with the realised nun Mo Shan deserves to be quoted: "Kuan T’si kneeled to offer his respects, and asked: "Who is Mo Shan?" She answered: "The top of the head is not seen". He asked: "Who is the owner of the mountain Mo Shan?" [Shan means "mountain"] She answered: "It is neither male nor female". He shouted: "Why does it not transform itself?" She replied back: "It is neither a ghost nor a spirit; into what should it be transformed?"

In Yoga’s subtle physiology, the top of the head and above correspond to the realm of the formless Shiva, of the motionless Absolute. Asking from Mo Shan : "Who is Mo Shan?” amounts to asking what her level of realisation is. If the questioner himself has not reached, discovered this level, the top of the head, no explicit answer will be able to communicate its experience to him. The supreme subject, the owner of the mountain, is beyond all the dualities, for instance that between male and female. He is also beyond transformations, indeed beyond being and non-being (in Sanskrit, "ghost" is called bhűta, meaning literally "being, entity").

In another text, one can discern the picturesque description of the ascent of energy:


There is no necessity for the swords to cross

A good practitioner, as the lotus blossoming in fire,

Is able to jump through the sky.


In the context of this quote, the swords which cross evoke the opposition between the appearance and the real, and their parallel position is the union between both, which is sought by the meditator. From the point of view of the subtle body, the metaphor suggests the entrance of the side currents into the central canal (the parallel swords) which induces an ascent and an awakening of the energy in the third eye, hence “the lotus blossoming in fire”. At that juncture, one goes beyond body consciousness, one can "jump through the sky".

One speaks of a "keeper of the Dharma” in the following way: "The spirit with the head of flames, holder of the vajra, is a guardian-spirit whose head is surrounded with a bright light. The sutra speaks of him as having been successful in transcending lust and transforming it into a fire of wisdom." One can see there a direct image of the ascending transmutation of the energy. One can find the same idea with a different simile in the answer to this question: "What does it mean to be seated, with a back well-erect, to remember Reality?" Yun Men said: "The coin which was thrown into the river must be taken back from it". There was a sage who settled on the pier of a port on a river and used to live in the boat, he was called "the boat-monk". One day, a seeker was asking him a question on the fundamental Nature, and he

answered by simply raising his oar. To my eyes, this may evoke the straightening of the back during meditation. It enables one to observe the river, the boat and the boatman as well, i.e., to observe

oneself while at work In that sense, this "erected oar" corresponds to the awakening of the energy of consciousness.

One can discern a similar meaning in the episode of the master who raises his flywhisk, a sign of his authority, to answer to the same kind of questions on the real Nature. The flywhisk, as the body during meditation, remains erect and fixed, but if there is wind, its hair may move. In the same way, when consciousness is absorbed inside, lungs keep on moving with the "wind" of breathing. When the body is completely immobile and breathing totally attentive, consciousness may soar beyond body and mind in the dharmakâya of the unique Space.

In a famous episode, Master Hsiuh Tcheu was awakened by Tsien Lung when the latter answered his question on the real nature by simply raising his finger, and he has also often transmitted the awakening to others in the same way. He acknowledged, in his gâthâ which was composed at the end of his life:


The Ch’an of the finger of Tsien Lung

was always used during my life.


In other terms, once receiving this shaktîpat and his energy was awakened by his master, he succeeded in not letting it coming down again and in imparting it. This not the case of all the disciples. It is as if a finger of energy were raising in every vertebra of his spine…

To conclude this part, I must say that these energetic phenomena concerning the subtle physiology have only a relative importance. As Houei Neng states at the beginning of this famous gâthâ which was awarded by the gift of transmission from the fifth Patriarch, "by

essence, bodhi has no tree", that is, it is not located in the central axis, it does not actually dwell anywhere, it is all-pervading; one feels it within the body only to help and facilitate the practice. One text of classical Yoga such as the Shiva-Samhitā supports the same idea when it devotes its first chapter to a full exposition of Vedanta,, i.e., to the Self which is completely independent from the body. Yoga is only a series of skilful means to reach this level. Energy and consciousness are intimately related. As says Houei Hai in his Treatise of Sudden Awakening : “If you still cannot reach the Truth of the Unborn, strive and add energy in right earnest. When energy will be sufficient, you will understand spontaneously[12].”


For a conclusion: from interpretations to practice


The understanding of the words of the Elder must avoid the two extremes: it should never be too painstaking, or else too superficial. Some people recite sutras which go around in their mind; they are like poor animals which work indefinitely with a Persian wheel: they could meditate on this piece of advice of Houei Neng who said, as we mentioned before, to a seeker who chanted the Lotus Sutra mechanically:


When mind is in illusion, the Lotus Sutra makes it go around in circle,

but when it is awakened, it makes the Sutra gravitate around him.


Conversely, to be satisfied with superficial interpretations or the ones of others does not help us to progress:


There are of weak spirituality

those who cannot give up their cherished attachments

and the others who have a tendency [to interpret too] quickly

as clever cats or white oxen would do.


In keeping a with the logic of the following saying, one should not remember these words of Yun Men, but since it has been transmitted in classical writings which have come to us, I allow myself to quote them : " Maintain your spirit high, but do not memorise others’ words. A little truth is better that a mass of lies…"

Should we wish to restate in a formula the paradox of Ch’an, or even more globally of the non-dual path, it would be: "There is nothing to do, but there is much to undo." Fully reading texts such as those which follow is interesting in that one may find certain words which may correct others: so, paradoxes are rebalancing each other in this way. Some thoughts may seem destabilising, but there will not be long before one may find another one which will be quite structuring. For instance, Lin Tsi was one of the masters who most emphasised the non-separation of the sacred and the profane, which means practically the value of action. Still, he advised, for those who had the possibility, to go and retire in a monastery and to live there without worries "seated on the end of the bed of meditation and eating rice to pass time..."

In Sanskrit, shîlam means ‘regular practice’, or ‘good habit’ and finally ‘morality, discipline’, on the other side the similar word shilâ means ‘rock, foundation stone’, etc. Relating the two words is already a teaching in itself. Discipline is the basis of stillness, samâdhi which leads in turn to wisdom, prajńâ. The practitioner must avoid the extremes of voluntarism and laxity, both are diseases, the second is probably more widespread than the first. Comparative mysticism is interesting, some have the vocation of writing on the subject, but the main work consists of being involved in a path and of practising. After a dense dialogue on the fundamental Nature, Master Tsao Chu advised his visitor: "It is not useful that the venerable friend creates difficulties for himself. On the dried log, he should have a few flowers blossom."

What constitutes the real difference between the "small" and "the big" vehicles, Hînayâna and Mahâyâna, is the intensity of practice and the various levels of understanding. There is no question there of geographical differences. He who has reached the real non-duality is beyond every sectarianism: if he would not be, who would be able to be so? In India, the terms ananta, ‘infinite’ and ânanda, ‘joy’, are often associated, because they correspond to a common reality. Houei Hai does not say differently: “If you do not have hindrance, joy is there automatically[13].”

By all kinds of original and refreshing metaphors, Ch’an masters send us back to ourselves, not to our ego, but towards our real nature. They have given us the same essential message as have the Upanishads, which define meditation simply as antar-chakshu, "the inner eye" or "the sight turned inward". One asked one day to a master famous for his laconic answers:


- What is in the intimate path of Yun Men?

- Intimate

What else should I say to the readers who will embark in the study of the following ancient texts, more than one millennium old?

It may be sufficient to remind them of the poem of the solitary Ch’an master in his mountain, Han Shan:


Of yore, here I passed

from now, it has been seventy years

of old friends, no visits any more.

They are buried in old tombs

today, white head,

still keeper of a parcel of mountain under the clouds

what should I recommend to the coming generations

except reading the words of the Elder?[14]

[1] Albin Michel/Spiritualités 2001

[2] Ibid, 2003

[3] Han-shan, Ce merveilleux chemin de Han –shan, Moundarren, Chemin des bois, 78940 Millemont, France, 1992, p.92

[4] Id., p.112

[5] Ibid, p.63

[6] E. d’Aquili et A.Neuberg The Mystical Mind - Probing the Biology of Religious Experience Fortress Press, Minneapolis, USA, 1999

[7] Jay Mâ n° 67 - 68, 2003, available on the site of Mâ Anandamayî :

[8] L'enseignement de Mâ Anandamayî Albin Michel/spiritualités, 1988 p. 121

[9] Published in the second volume of Lu K’uan Yű

[10] Albin Michel/spiritualités 2003, 3e partie, ch.3

[11] Albin Michel/spiritualités 2001

[12] Houei-hai L’éveil subit Albin Michel, 1999, p.31

[13] Ibid., p.58

[14] Han-shan, op.cit., p.111