The etymology of gongan
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The word ’Seon’ comes from the Chinese word ‘Chan’, a transliteration of the Sanskrit word ’Dhyâna’. Loosely translated, it means “meditative absorption.” Another definition would be “silently thinking.” ‘Jwa-seon’ (sitting-seon) thus means “meditating silently while seated.”
The sixth patriarch, Huineng, defined ’sitting’ as externally being in the world of good and evil and yet having no thought arising in the heart, and ‘Seon’ as internally seeing the self and not straying away from it. The formal practice Seon entails one sitting upright in a room with a calm atmosphere and some burning incense, breathing deeply and steadily while thinking about something. But what is it you should think about?
Think about life.
’What is life?’ ’What should I do in my life?’ ’Where have I come from and where am I ultimately heading?’ ’What does it mean to live and to die?’ ’What is the relationship between the universe and my life?’ ’What is the right way to live?’ ’What is life’s true meaning?’
Life is invaluable. There is nothing that can compensate for it. As such, we must take the most upright course through this precious life. Living with a false vision of reality, one cannot see one’s own true self, one’s own true existence and this life is simply wasted away. It becomes a “false life.”
You must steel within yourself an ardent determination, thinking, “Life is full of defilements. Where have these defilements come from? I must liberate myself from them and realize my pure original countenance, the true image of my original self.” There is only one path to such a true awakening and you must search deeply into this only path, meditating in silence about the defilements of life, their causes, their cessation, and the means to bring it about.
In the times of Sakyamuni , there was once a disciple with such a bad memory that he could not even remember his own name and had to carry a name tag around his neck. To teach this disciple the way of the upright dharma, Sakyamuni asked him to memorize only a singe sentence, "Brush the dust away and wash the dirt off." For three years, when he was sitting, standing, sleeping and awake, the disciple thought earnestly about only this one short sentence. As he continued to meditate on this one single hwadu, the dust in his mind was brushed away and the dirt all washed off, such that suddenly he discovered the stage of true self that is without dust, dirt, or defilements, beyond even any truth itself.
The tradition known as “Patriarchal Seon,” developed by successive patriarchs of old, is the teaching that every person, regardless of their powers of intellect or memory, can penetrate into the realm of Buddha in one sweeping stride, awakening to the pure original face, through questioning with absolute diligence one single problem, one hwadu, like the disciple spoken of above. Is this not a rather mysterious and wonderful thing?