[Review] Swampland Flowers
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The letters and Lectures of Chan Master Dahui
Tr. J. C. Cleary
A new edition of Swampland Flowers makes available again in English the teaching of Master Dahui, a great Chinese Chan master of the 12th century. Master Dahui (1088-1163) initiated the way the hwadu (C. huat’ou) is used today. In his introduction, the translator tells us that Master Dahui became a monk at the age of 17. Early on he wondered why in his time there were five sects of Chan when there was only one patriarch -- Bodhidharma. His teacher, Yuanwu, asked Dahui to grapple with the Koan originating from Master Yunmen’s saying ‘East Mountain walks on the water’. Dahui had to come up with forty-nine separate answers because Yuanwu believed that one experience was not enough. His master encouraged Dahui to relate with various laypeople and he started to exchange letters with them.
At his death his attendant asked for a verse. Dahui agreed that ‘without a verse I cannot die’, so he said:
Birth is thusDeath is thusVerse or no verseWhat’s the fuss.
Swampland Flowers is a compilation of letters and lectures given by Master Dahui over a period of many years. In these letters Master Dahui gives many practical advice and pointers to help us in our practice and in our daily life. For Master Dahui to cultivate “no-mind” is not to be inert and unknowing, on the contrary it means that the mind is settled and imperturbable when in contact with situations and meeting circumstances. When we sit regularly in meditation, we develop a deep stability. This stability needs to be transformed into an inner stability, an inner settled posture, which will enable us to encounter difficulties in a different way without exaggeration or proliferation.
This is why Master Dahui encourages you to be spontaneously aware and knowing as you are going along with circumstances, then there is neither lack nor excess. Master Dahui is showing you that when you grasp negatively at what you dislike or positively at what you like, you create lack or excess by exaggerating the badness or goodness of what you grasp at. If instead you are fully aware and engaged with what you encounter then you can develop a more creative approach.
He points out that one is easily caught in one’s habits and patterns but that the strength of the path is that it is fresh and unfamiliar. He inspires you to let go and make your heart empty and open. Many times we feel close and tight because we remain with the known, the secure, the expected. Walking the path of Chan practice opens us to each day anew, not expecting anything specific but opening to what will happen and what we will encounter in a fresh way. This is the way of the hwadu, of questioning ‘imoko’, that is: “What is this?’
In one letter, Master Dahui recommends that we remember to practice in all circumstances: ‘Since we parted I don’t know whether or not you can avoid being carried away by external objects in your daily activities as you respond to circumstances, whether or not you can put aside your heap of legal documents as you look through them, whether or not you can act freely when you meet with people, whether or not you engage in vain thinking when you are where it is peaceful and quiet...’
In this book again and again Master Dahui reminds us to practice in everything we do. For example we need to be aware when we are working but also when we meet and communicate with people. ‘What does it mean to act freely when we meet people?’ It means being fresh and creative, not being caught in mental images and prejudices in which we fix ourselves and others. Often we are very self-conscious when we meet people. Can we go beyond that awkward self-consciousness and feel free and strong while being compassionate at the same time? When nothing is happening, can we use this quiet time as an opportunity to meditate, instead of being bored, dreaming away or worried about something? Can we use those moments to question more deeply and to be more fully present to our lives?
He also gives us advice on how to practice with the hwadu: Whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, just constantly call the story to mind: “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not? No.” When you can keep your attention on it fully, when verbal discussion and intellectual consideration cannot reach and your heart is agitated, when it is like gnawing on an iron spike, without any flavor, then you must not falter in your intent.. When we use a hwadu in meditation, be it the ‘No’ of Zhaozhou or the ‘What is this?’ of Huineng, Master Dahui puts the emphasis on the continuity of the enquiry. He points outs that this enquiry might not always be comfortable as we need to let go of our endless mental constructions and any other things that we use to support our self-grasping. Moreover raising the great doubt requires great courage and determination as it can destabilize our certainties and does not leave us sometimes any ground to stand on.
He adds that whether happy or angry, in quiet or noisy places, you must bring up Zhaozhou’s saying “A dog has no Buddha nature.” Above all, don’t consciously await enlightenment, you’re saying, “right now, I am deluded.” Again and again Master Dahui questions our tendency to fix, to categorize and to separate. He lets us know that we can be both enlightened and deluded, as one moment we can manifest enlightenment and the next we can be caught in delusion.
He is keen to show that we do not need to be afraid of falling into emptiness when we practice Chan meditation. He asks: ‘is the one who fears falling into emptiness empty or not?’ But at the same time Master Dahui tells us to be careful about emptiness: ‘In the daily activities of a student of the path, to empty objects is easy, but to empty mind is hard. If objects are empty but mind is not empty, mind will be overcome by objects. Just empty the mind, and objects will be empty of themselves’. If we think that everything outside of ourselves is empty, this will not help us as we will not take what we encounter seriously and we will get into all kind of troubles. If on the contrary we empty our mind of rigid opinions, fixed ideas, self-importance, greed, hatred and delusion, then we will be able to act and live more wisely and compassionately. Then we will not be caught by the objects or persons we encounter as we will see their conditionality and dependent-origination. Then we will be able to creatively engage with them.
This is a Chan classic I would highly recommend. It can be read again and again and one will always find something new to reflect on and be inspired by.