In the Spirit of Ch'an 2

The word "Ch'an" can mean enlightenment, and enlightenment can be understood to mean realizing "the first meaning, " or "the ultimate truth." In Ch'an, there is also what is called "secondary meaning, " or "conventional truth." Conventional truth can be expressed in words and concepts, but the primary, or ultimate, truth of Ch'an cannot be expressed in words. In the Ch'an tradition, sometimes the ultimate truth is compared to the moon, and the conventional truth compared to a finger pointing at the moon. No one would mistake the finger for the moon. Words, language, ideas, and concepts are like the finger and can express just the conventional truth. These words and concepts only point to the ultimate truth. The ultimate truth can be called mind, original nature, or Buddha-nature. It is something everyone must experience for himself or herself. It can never be fully described.

What is the source of Ch'an? According to the Ch'an lore, the monk Bodhidharma brought Ch'an from India to China in about 500 C.E., more than a thousand years after Shakyamuni Buddha's death. But Indian history contains few records of the interim period, so we know relatively little about the origins of Ch'an practice.

We do know stories and legends that describe the origins of Ch'an. Most famous is the account of the transmission of the Dharma to Mahakashyapa, one of the Buddha's chief disciples, who became the First Patriarch in the Ch'an lineage. The story is this: one day during a sermon at Vulture Peak, Shakyamuni Buddha held a flower in his hand in front of the assembly and did not speak. No one seemed to know what this gesture meant, but Mahakashyapa smiled. The Buddha said, "The Treasure of the Eye of the True Dharma, the Wondrous Mind of Nirvana; only Mahakashyapa understands." This event marks the beginning of the Ch'an lineage and the master-to-disciple transmission that continues to this day. This story was unknown to Buddhist history until the tenth-century Song dynasty. But the literal truth of the story is not as important as the message it contains about the nature of Ch'an.