Western Ch'an Fellowship, UK, 1990. May not be quoted for commercial purposes. Anyone wishing to quote for non-commercial purposes may seek permission from the secretary secretary@w-c-f.org.uk or Simon Child, 24 Woodgate Ave, Bury, Lancs, BL9 7RU, England UK.

"Guarding the One":

Talks given by Shih-fu on the first two evenings of the Ch'an retreat in April 1989.


I have only been in your country for a day, but already I have learnt something about you people. You have a love for ancient things. This house is hundreds of years old, you treasure the worm-eaten beams and the crumbling stone walls, the bent timbers of the old barn. In Taiwan we are busily engaged in pulling everything down and building up the new. So it is appropriate here that I should like to talk to you about one of the oldest Chinese scriptures.

It was written during the Liang Dynasty (502 - 556). Buddhism was already established and Ch'an developing. Yet, in those early years, the Chinese did not distinguish too clearly between their own Taoist ideas and those of the new religion. So in this text you will find a number of Taoist ideas and these give a particular flavour to this Ch'an.

The text is so early that we are not sure who wrote it. He is known as Wang Ming, but that maybe a pseudonym He was a monk and took his vows under a Ch'an master. His intellectual ability suggests that he also studied theory with numerous other teachers. Wang Ming emphasises the unification of mind as especially important and this goes back to the old Indian idea of bringing the mind to single-pointedness. He calls his poem "Calming the Mind" and its emphasis on the method of practice makes it valuable for beginners.

In the poem 'Mind' can be used in two senses. The first meaning refers to the worried mind of discrimination, the tense mind that needs to relax. It is to this mind which the title refers. Yet when the mind becomes relaxed what is the 'Mind' then? This leads to the second meaning - a mind beyond illusion, discrimination and the need to relax

When you try to calm the discriminating mind there are two important principles. The first is to cease worrying and the second is not to be concerned with knowledge. We would like to be able to concentrate fully on our method, be it counting the breath, silent awareness or working with a koan. Yet the more we try the less concentration we achieve. Our minds simply do not obey our intentions. We try to stay with the method, but before we know where we are the mind has drifted away onto something else. Our attitude is wrong somewhere: we feel frustrated and lost.

This morning I asked you to leave behind all those people and events with whom you have been relating. Of course these things are important and after the retreat we shall take them up again But for now in the retreat we should let them go. What is it that makes this so difficult? Mostly the thoughts that arise are concerned with the past - or perhaps with the future. This involves discrimination, judgement, and memory, and provokes an anxious tension that varies in strength according to the topic that comes up and your own disposition. It is vital to practise putting all this down. Just put it down. Leave aside the past and all knowledge. When you can do this for as long as you wish, you will have found a certain freedom

Please do not misunderstand me. It is not that knowledge and experience are to be avoided or condemned; rather knowledge and experience are to be valued, but we need to gain control of their use. if we leave them to ramble haphazardly through our heads, sowing worries and agitation, they will become a burden to us. We need to cultivate the art of putting aside our memories, our concerns and our intellectual knowledge.

The first verse of the poem reads:

'Too much knowledge leads to overactivity; Better to calm the mind The more you consider, the greater the loss; Better to unify the mind'

The more you know the more things can cause you distress. When you know little you can be simple. In practice do not consider what you are doing intellectually. All you need to do is the practice itself. Use it to replace everything else.

In Chinese the sentence 'Better to unify the mind' can be translated as 'Guard the one'. What is this one? There are two meanings here. The first applies to the mind that is split up, discriminating, filled with illusory intellection The mind needs to be focused, brought to a single point. Guarding the one means bringing the mind to this single place, and that is done through the method of practice.

This is portrayed in the Ch'an tradition by the parable of the ox herder. To herd the ox it has to be trained to do its job and not to wander about over other peoples gardens. To begin with the ox herder must use his whip and apply discipline. Later the ox is tamed; when eating it eats, when drawing the plough, it pulls. It does the thing in hand undistractedly. This is guarding the one.

Once the mind has come to a single point the term acquires a further meaning. The mind is now no longer practising. It has arrived and the whip can be put away.

Three things are happening: Body and mind are one; internal and external are unified; and previous thought and subsequent thought merge as one. No longer is there an experience of the mind separate from the body. No longer is the observer separate from the observed Time is no longer split into now and then. In this way, once the mind is unified so the one is guarded.

'Excessive thinking weakens the will The more you know, the more your mind is confused A confused mind gives way to vexation The weakened will obstructs the Tao.'

Again do not fall into the mistaken belief that Ch'an is anti- intellectual. These lines refer to the inappropriateness of thinking in the context of practise. Sometimes when people come to me with an answer to a koan it is obvious that they have got it from a book, or as a result of theorising. It is not an answer arising from a mind free of illusion. If you are relying on books or theories or other peoples descriptions you can never answer a koan. The wisdom of the book is not the wisdom of seeing, and you will be far from the mark. If you are far from the mark you are confused and there will be vexation. If there is intellectual doubt there is only a faulty awakening.


Don't say there is no harm in this; the ensuing pain may last for ever. Don't think there is nothing to fear; the calamities churn like bubbles in a boiling pot.

Wang Ming does not intend us to take him lightly. He is very much in earnest. He says that when we are practising, if we cannot put down the habit of reasoning, of turning our knowledge over and over, then we cannot obtain the benefits of meditation. To continue with such a habit constitutes a serious problem No one should think there is nothing to fear. Rather you need to know that such a habit generates harm that can continue indefinitely.

In the sutras there is a particular term which points at our capacity for tolerating this world of suffering. Although we recognise that this is a world of suffering we continue to put up with it. Not only that; we are willingly tolerant of suffering. We remain attached to the concerns of worldly life, the worries, the vanities, the discriminating categories we use to judge one another. This is a world where we cope with suffering and rarely go beyond it.

Likewise a practitioner of Ch'an may know very well that wandering discursive thoughts are potentially harmful but none the less remain positively attracted to such thoughts. After all they are entertaining. When told not to entertain such tantalising ideas and to think of nothing, the practitioner soon finds it very boring.

Since we are serious about practice we should not think lightly of these warnings. If we heed them we can go beyond knowledge and true practice can begin.

Water dripping ceaselessly will fill the four seas. Specks of dust not wiped away will become the five mountains.

Don't think that a tiny bit of wandering thought is irrelevant. Accumulated together these tiny wandering thoughts become one gigantic wandering thought - a monster. This habit has been formed since time without beginning. Endlessly we judge things and one another by using them. And this has passed down from life to life since time without beginning. Indeed it is Karma itself, we are this habit; entangled and constrained within it And of this we are unaware. When we focus in practice it becomes quite easy to see the truth of this. We can see the scattered thought, the endless cycling of our limited and cageing ideas, judgements and prejudices. The more clearly we see such things the better the chance of our success.

In dealing with wandering thoughts the first step is to recognise when the mind is wandering. Often it comes over us so subtly that we do not even notice it. Then suddenly we notice our minds have wandered. So we have to be mindful of what we are doing in our practice. When we do detect that our minds have gone wandering it is important not to feel irritated with oneself. It simply tires you out if you take up a belligerent attitude towards your own mind! The paradoxical thing is this - that very often as soon as you can recognise the fact of wandering, the mind clears. The recognition itself can do the trick. The art of it is to repeatedly recognise the state of mind and bring it back into focus. By doing this the body energy is renewed and you have fewer periods of wandering thought There is a daily cycle of energy with some periods when you have less than at other times. This is natural. So there is no need for a fight. Simply be attentively aware at all times.

We can make use of an analogy here. Meditation is like using a fan - the old fashioned hand-held type. You have the task of catching a feather on the fan. Every time you move the fan, the feather is likely to be blown away. Its a delicate business. You have to hold out the fan, quite still, just under the space through which the feather is sinking of its own motion. The feather then comes to rest on the top of the fan. You can imagine for yourself how difficult or easy this may be! Any use of force and the feather is lost. Yet, once you grasp the principle, it is very easy. Stilling the mind is like catching a feather with a fan. It needs patience and persistence. When practising do not be afraid of a distracting thought. If your body has a problem do not get concerned with it If your mind is worrying - put the worry down. Keep the mind on the method - waiting for the feather to sink onto the fan.

And again supposing you are in a very good situation - no distractions, no wandering thoughts. Whatever you do never congratulate yourself! Away goes the feather at once! So don't be happy! Do not think how successful you are. Just observe the situation without movement towards or away. If the mind moves, wandering thought begins.

Another difficult problem in practice is that of dozing off. Sleepiness may be due to lack of energy, or a temporary malaise such as a cold. If you are practising well and a great sleepiness comes then sometimes there is nothing that can really help. If you have become very exhausted h is important just to take a rest But if you lack energy through laziness, or are merely a little drowsy, then if you increase your breathing by taking some fresh air, or exercise, you may energise yourself again.

In fact Wang Ming doesn't discuss the problem of falling asleep. Perhaps in his day practitioners never lacked energy!

Protect the branches to save the roots; though a small matter it is not trivial Close the seven orifices, shut off the six senses.

Here the branches are the minor vexatious while the roots are the major ones that may last a lifetime. If one is not careful with the minor vexatious they may develop into major ones. For instance you may not be about to rob or kill anyone. Yet, if the mind is filled by little hatreds or avarice, although you do not act upon these promptings, one day they may propel you to commit some crime. It is important to protect the mind from such a possibility. It means not only do we have to be aware of how our minds function when meditating, we also need to be mindful in everyday life. When meditating you may put aside evil thoughts, but as you go about the world they may often assail you.

There are many examples of mistaken lives of this kind. Some people go into the mountains and practise, maybe for years. They come to feel that they have gone beyond all greed and hatred. The mind is calm so how could such negativities arise? They may even feel they have attained liberation. So they come down from the mountains and start interacting again in the world. Quite quickly they may get irritated by others, or form some emotional attachments, which they find they cannot handle. Greed and hatred appear and they are forced to recognise that they still have major vexatious.

This result occurs because, even though hidden in the mountains and not experiencing airy major trouble, still the minor illusions, the stuff of wandering thought, has not been put down. So you can see how important it is to cut off even minor wandering thoughts. One who works hard with a method may not be able to cut off all illusory thoughts for all time. But at least he or she can get to the stage of cutting them off for a few seconds, minutes or hours. Even a few days. It is important to recognise that your mind can be free from illusion.

When such a person is faced with difficulty in daily life it becomes easier to recognise the nature of that difficulty. Even as the vexation arises the practitioner has awareness of it and prevents a negative manifestation But if one fails to practise after leaving the mountain, even though awareness may be present, a manifestation will usually occur. This is why many of us look forward to spending time in retreat or to practising in the mountains.

Closing the seven orifices, two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth, and shutting off the six senses, seeing, hearing, smelling, taste, touch and cognition, is the discipline of withdrawal from the attachments we have to worldly things. Such discipline in retreat enables us to perceive how the mind of illusion functions and provides a space in which clarity develops.

When I was a young monk near Shanghai, I was with a group of boys who were so poor that we hardly ever had enough food. One day an old monk of better means provided us with some additional dishes. Amongst them was a plate of bean curd. It was such a rare treat that one boy set aside a small slice so that he could relish it later on. He nibbled a tiny bit every day. For three days he managed to spin it out But then one of our teachers saw what was happening. He slapped the boy and threw away his bean curd. The teacher told him; 'With this attitude you will end up as a hungry ghost!'.

When we are engaged in meditation our practice should not be suffused by an attitude of comparison. Maybe something is good looking, maybe something sounds bad. That's all. We train ourselves so that the mind does not give rise to likes or dislikes, triggered by the environment. Whatever we have experienced is simply so; there's no need to get worked up about it.

Pay no heed to forms; Do not listen to sound listening to sounds you become deaf, You become blind observing forms.

There is deeper meaning here. When you listen to sounds you interpret them according to your nature. When you observe forms you likewise create a story about them. But these ideas you have are not the actual reality. The actual nature of the sound we don't hear. The actual nature of form we don't perceive. So, in that we don't perceive reality, when we look at things we are as blind; when we hear things we are as deaf. Understanding the illusory nature of experience we should not get disturbed by whatever arises.

One of you has objected that if one lived as blind and deaf one could not perceive the beauty of the world and could not experience gratitude for life. Pleasure and gratitude are related Surely it is not wrong to feel gratitude.

It is important not to be mistaken about Wang Ming's message. We need to understand it with subtlety. He is simply saying that sentiments like gratitude have no place within practice. Before practice and after practice you experience the pleasures and pains of this world. Then gratitude arises, compassion arises, love arises. It is in order to have a clear perception of the natural state that we need to practice without these things. The natural state is just as it is; naked; unadorned by sentiment. In practice it is essential for us to have such a mind of total clarity. We are speaking here of the vital elements of intensive practice. In everyday activity we experience the whole of life, including illusion. Through practice we can penetrate to the core, and mindfulness becomes part of everyday life too.

We do not yet perceive the meaning of the phrase in the Heart Sutra:

Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form

So, in our practice we must investigate the mind. In cutting off the senses we perceive mind without the intrusion of wandering thought. It is an essential aspect of training.

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