By Daniel Scharpenburg
“Legend has it that more than a thousand years ago an Indian Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma arrived in China. His approach to teaching was unlike that of any of the Buddhist missionaries who had come to China before him. He confounded the emperor with cryptic dialogues, traveled the country, lived in a cave in the mountains, and eventually paved the way for a unique and illuminating approach to Buddhist teachings that would later spread across the whole of East Asia in the form of Chan—later to be known as Seon in Korean, Thien in Vietnam, and Zen in Japanese.”
-from the back cover
I’ve been wondering for a while if I could write an “Introduction to Chan Buddhism” book. Books like this exist, but there are not many.
Some people think all the branches of Chan are the same. (Chan in China, Thien in Vietnam, Seon in Korea….and Zen in Japan) but there are differences that matter. In every country it enters, Buddhism changes. Sometimes the changes are big, sometimes the changes are small. Even here in America, Buddhism has made some changes that you may be unaware of. That would probably be a good article for another time.
Chan is what I teach and I think we need it here in the West. That being said, the book I’m writing about today is a wonderful introduction to Chan Buddhism and it greatly exceeded my expectations.
This book is called The Essence of Chan: A Guide to Life and Practice according to the Teachings of Bodhidharma by Guo Gu. It’s a little book, less than 120 pages.
Guo Gu’s teacher was Master Sheng Yen. This great master decided to stick with the word Chan and not do what some other teachers have done and use the word Zen. The word zen is famous, as I’m sure you know. Zen came to the West in the 1800s.
I want to acknowledge that Sheng Yen is my favorite of the teachers that came to the West to teach Buddhism.
He founded a lineage called Dharma Drum and I would like it very much if there was a Dharma Drum Center here in Kansas City so I could practice in that tradition. Guo Gu operates the Tallahassee Chan Center in Florida. I’m aware of a center in this lineage in Chicago and another in New York. I’m sure there are others. Another of Sheng Yen’s students started an organization called “The Western Chan Fellowship” in England.
Anyway, Guo Gu (aka Dr. Jimmy Yu) was a student of Sheng Yen and served as his assistant for many years. He trained as a monk and he also has a western education. I found out from his Wikipedia page that he went to the same college I did (the University of Kansas) at the same time I was there. I wish we had met. He’s a college professor in addition to running his center and writing books like this one.
I was excited when I received this book. I have another book of his called, Passing Through The Gateless Barrier. To me it’s one of the best Chan books out there, but probably not good for beginners. It’s a deep study of a Gong An (koan) collection called The Gateless Barrier. I’ve actually used that book as a resource for giving some of my own teachings.
The Essence of Chan is an introduction to the Chan tradition. But it’s also a good book for helping us to look at things in a slightly different way, so it could also be very useful to an experienced practitioner. Sometimes coming at things in a different way is good. It presents the tradition through the lens of the beginning. Bodhidharma is credited as the founder of the Chan tradition and this book examines his fundamental teachings and why they still matter today.
I think when people write introductory Buddhist books they struggle to figure out an outline and where to begin. Maybe they don’t and it’s just me. Guo Gu made a wise choice, I think, in writing about how Bodhidharma presented the tradition. The teachings of The Barbarian Master are the foundation of everything that came after.
From the introduction:
“In Bodhidharma’s principal teaching, recognition is purification. Instead of eliminating wandering thoughts or vexations either by thinking of something positive or by looking at them from a different perspective, we can simply recognize the empty nature of these thoughts.”
That’s a way of looking at things that might not resonate with many meditators, but it resonates with me. It’s looking at things in a different way. We aren’t trying to stamp out our runaway thoughts, we’re trying to turn our minds to see behind them.
And later in the book, my favorite line is this: “Buddha-nature—the nature of fluidity, openness, and clarity—is everyone’s true nature, whether one is a criminal or a sage.”
We get there by realizing we’re already there. Our true nature is open and clear, we just have to put down our vexations to see it. And everyone around you has that same wonderful true nature, even when it really seems like they don’t. Definitely a hard thing to grasp at times, but such a wonderful message. All beings are Buddhas.
Bodhidharma gave a short teaching called, The Two Entries and that’s what this whole book is about. It’s from a scroll and it’s the first teaching that’s specifically for the Chan Tradition (at least the first one we know about). The Two Entries are, Entry Through Principle and Entry Through Practice. Each of these is, in turn, divided into four things. It seems like Buddhists really love lists.
Entry Through Principle represents understanding the world and our place in it.
Entry Through Practice represents the work we’re doing on the path.
Both of these entries are important. It’s essentially the philosophy behind all this on the one hand and the actual work we’re doing on the other. Another religious tradition might think of it as “faith” on one hand and “good works” on the other.
Using this foundational teaching as a jumping off point, Guo Gu succinctly presents the Chan tradition. He takes his commentary and explores ancient stories but also puts it into modern and relatable contexts too. These very old teachings are still applicable today and in this book they come alive. And Guo Gu sneaks in many helpful tips for a simple daily meditation practice too.
This is the perfect introduction to the Chan tradition. It can be used by beginners who want to learn something new and also by people who have been practicing for a long time and need some reminders to energize their practice.
If I can recommend one book on Buddhism from the last 10 years, I think I’d recommend this one.
Photo: Shambhala Publications
Editor: Dana Gornall
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