The Three Stages of Chan Realization

When you emerge from the absorbed, oblivious state after realizing no-self, mountains are mountains again: you see everything as before, but with a calm, undisturbed mind.

Ms. Chen: Greetings, everyone, and welcome to another segment of Great Dharma Drum. People say that learning to paint has three stages: first, seeing mountains as mountains, then mountains not as mountains, then in the end, mountains as mountains again. People say that sitting mediation has the same three stages. Only in the last stage does the self no longer exist. Now we’d like to ask Master Sheng Yen how Chan practitioners experience things in each of the three stages. Let us ask the Master to shed light on this.

Master Sheng Yen. 1931–2009

Master Sheng Yen: I don’t know if painters really have such experiences. But I do know the process that Chan practitioners go through. At first, they are average people – fathers are fathers, mothers are mothers, wives are wives, husbands are husbands. They bother each other and love each other. Also, it seems that every family has its fair share of trouble. Of course, some families do quite well; they are happy almost every day. But there can’t be many families like this. Most families have their troubles.

We are so deep into our practice that we look but do not see, listen but do not hear, eat but do not taste. It’s like someone being so absorbed in listening to music, that if we tell him to give us his money, he might just say “Help yourself.” But in fact he doesn’t really know what is going on. After the music is over, he looks into his wallet and finds his money is gone, but he has no idea who took it. Is this possible? Yes.

Next is a higher stage of practice, where “mountains are seen not as mountains.” Our family and the people we usually come in contact with now seem like strangers. We are so deep into our practice that we look but do not see, listen but do not hear, eat but do not taste. It’s like someone being so absorbed in listening to music, that if we tell him to give us his money, he might just say “Help yourself.” But in fact he doesn’t really know what is going on. After the music is over, he looks into his wallet and finds his money is gone, but he has no idea who took it. Is this possible? Yes.

When we are enjoying or studying something that interests us and we become completely absorbed in it, we’ll naturally cease to notice the things around us. We are so intent on our work, that we don’t notice what’s happening. When people talk to us, we respond with “uh-huh,” but we have no idea what they’re talking about. We hear them but we don’t know what they said. It’s possible for Chan practitioners to act like this when they reach this level. Have they succeeded in spiritual cultivation? Not yet. Spiritual cultivation is a lengthy process.

When our faith is strong and our mind calm, we will encounter such situations after we’ve been reciting sutras or prostrating for a long while. This is especially true with meditation. Even average people encounter such situations when they concentrate like that. This is the state where “mountains aren’t mountains.” Next is the level where “mountains are mountains again.” This happens when practitioners have completed one stage of cultivation and come out of extreme concentration. At this moment, the world they see now is exactly the same as the old one.

However, now there’s something different. For those who haven’t been practicing deeply for a long time or haven’t been enlightened, then if they take a break or rest for a while, everything is the same as before. When faced with a given situation, their emotional response is still the same. But if they have gone through deep cultivation where they completely throw themselves into their practice, and thus experienced “mountains aren’t mountains,” then their physical and mental responses are completely different. Their mental state is different. When they look around at this moment, flowers are still colorful and snow is still white and beautiful but their heart will be calm; they know that a beautiful woman is beautiful, but their heart doesn’t palpitate with excitement. Perhaps they used to be very timid, but after going through deep cultivation, they won’t be so scared when witnessing terrible things. They have settled the self, or even let go of it or dissolved it. At that time, mountains still are mountains but their mind is so calm and steady and unaffected. This is the third stage. Amituofo.

[Amituofo (阿弥陀佛) is a word found among Chinese Buddhists. It is a Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit word for Amitabha, the name of the Buddha. It has become a catch-all term for Chinese Buddhists, including Shaolin Monks. Saying Amituofo has much utility. It is used as a greeting, a farewell, a response to an outcome, and a well-wishing phrase. It is used in many circumstances and serves the Shaolin Monks and the Shaolin Warrior Monks. It is possible you had ever encountered it before and did not even realize it.

In many of the classical Kung Fu films of the 1970s and 80s often, the actors playing Shaolin monks or the Shaolin masters would greet characters or say farewell or respond to the concerns of the protagonists with “Buddha’s name be praised” or “Buddha is praised.” This is, in fact, a poor translation of Amituofo by western filmmakers, but the usage is the same. But saying Amituofo is not just an empty gesture; something said lightly or with absent intent. It is both a spiritual and martial practice.]

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