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Ch'an Buddhism - Empty Mind Ground

johnathanjohnathan ICBICanada Veteran
edited March 21 in Buddhism Basics

I have read about this term a few times in my wanderings online but nothing that really defines it in a way that I can understand. Has anyone seen these terms before and able to elucidate its meaning?

Here is an example (https://thesanghakommune.org/2020/03/01/looking-at-buddhist-monasticism/)

Obviously, as Buddhists are striving to find the empty mind ground – and then ‘unite’ with that mind ground – there is a ‘oneness’ being sought, albeit a distinctly ‘Buddhist’ monad. The empty mind ground is found when the obscuration of greed, hatred and delusion are removed. This path can be followed by anybody regardless of situation and life circumstance. An Ordained monastic takes one path, whilst a lay-person takes another. Both are useful and meet in the act (and doorway) of seated meditation, and ‘selfless’ service to others. Buddhist monasticism is a ‘moment to moment’ affair, with profound implications for the texture of perception and nature of enhanced understanding. No one Ordained the Buddha, and his first Disciples took refuge only in the Buddha and Dharma – as no formal Sangha existed at this time. Buddhist monasticism is the rediscovering of the purity of the original ‘tree-dwellers’, with historical evidence suggesting that before the developing of the Vinaya Discipline, the Buddha emphasised the following of the Dhammapada!

And from a different article (https://thesanghakommune.org/2020/02/13/what-the-buddha-probably-meant-by-rebirth/)

There is no metaphysical speculation in the Buddha’s path. Attention must be directed to assessing the stream of thought that traverses the surface of the mind, so that which seems to a continuous stream of conscious thought, is in fact endless ‘moments’ of isolated thoughts which possess ‘gaps’ between them. It is these gaps which we must become aware of and penetrate with meditative insight. It is through these gaps that we realise the underlying empty mind ground and ‘still’ all thoughts in the mind. All thoughts emerge from this empty psychic fabric – and return to it once the conditioned (karmic) habit-energy is used up. By getting to the root of all six senses, all the root karmic energy that manifests greed, hatred and delusion is broken and thoroughly used up. The ‘rebirth’ of one out of control moment into a new out of control moment comes to an end. This being the case, the aggregates that combine to form a human body dissolve and fall away at death. Conscious awareness of this process lasts as long as the physical body continues to function, but ultimately ‘falls away’ as the Buddha taught. To understand the Buddha’s rebirth theory, you must look into the present moment here and now…

And (https://thesanghakommune.org/2018/12/10/the-chinese-chan-school-and-buddhist-dialectics/)

Old habits of perception must be firmly identified and thrown-away as being redundant and of no perceptually valid purpose. There is an element of human perception that sees both ‘form’ and ‘void’ from a unified position of awareness. Within the Ch’an texts this is termed realising the ‘empty mind ground’.

And (https://thesanghakommune.org/2016/09/02/upali-attachment-to-sila-is-not-enlightenment/)

Having clearly defined and understood that a lay-person is a lay-person, and a renunciate is a renunciate, it is important to realise that the empty mind ground underlies and permeates these two expedient states with no difference whatsoever.

And

A ‘gongan’, is premised solely upon the use of the ‘language of the uncreate’, and is designed to bring the stream of deluded (and obscuring) thoughts to an abrupt stop, so that the mind is ‘stilled’, and the empty mind ground is immediately perceived.

And (https://thesanghakommune.org/2016/08/29/flawed-understanding-of-chan-methods-in-the-west/)

...Correct hua tou practice reveals that all the six senses emerge from the empty mind ground....

...The hua tou uses the questioning device of ‘Who’ to turn the mind (usually, but not always, through the organ of ‘hearing’) back to the empty mind ground from which the six sensory stimuli emerge. In theory, any of the six senses can be ‘returned’ in this manner, such as ‘Who is seeing?’, or ‘Who is feeling (pain or pleasure)?’, etc, but generally speaking, the preferred method within Chinese Ch’an is ‘Who is hearing?’ ...

...This wipes all notions of duality, and leads to the integration of form and void at source (i.e. the empty mind ground). Do not be confused about the difference between ‘gongan’ and ‘hua tou’ practice within the Chinese Ch’an School....

Comments

  • johnathanjohnathan ICBI Canada Veteran

    In creating this question post I elucidated some more on my own but am interested what others have to say on the topic.

  • KeromeKerome Love, love is mystery The Continent Veteran

    It’s interesting, I came across this in the first article...

    The Ordained Buddhist path is considered a powerful fast-track toward liberation from all suffering, whilst the lay-path is often presented as a slow-path to personal happiness, but not necessarily full liberation or enlightenment.

    Which is a bit of a side note, worth discussing later perhaps.

    But I have read through a few of the linked articles in order to get more of a sense of the context. It might have been useful to put in some quote marks ( these > ) in front of the actual quotations.

    The empty mind ground is not something I have come across before, but it does ring a few bells with respect to the ‘ground’ which is something I have heard of. I’ll try and chase down a reference but it might be a little tricky as it was sometime ago.

    The main difficulty I have is with relating the empty mind ground to the context in which it is encountered. For example if you were to research into nimitta you might find that it is a phenomenon you encounter during a meditation, as described in Ajahn Brahm’s book on meditation. So there is a clear link between the phenomenon and where it is encountered. With the descriptions of the empty mind ground above it is given a metaphysical meaning, without being given a place, in how to encounter it or deduce it or perceive its existence.

    Without such a practical derivation of the phenomenon it is very easy to end up with a piece of theory, which relates to other pieces of theory perhaps but not to a practical beginning point in the practice.

    johnathanAlex
  • johnathanjohnathan ICBI Canada Veteran
    edited March 22

    @Kerome

    So I messaged the site administrator, Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD, for clarification... it my message I wrote:

    I think the Empty Mind Ground refers to the quiet space between thoughts. The goal of Hau Tou and Silent Illumination is to train the mind to dwell in that place, which is found when the obscuration of greed, hatred and delusion are removed. Finding that stillness ends our moment to moment rebirth, perceiving things from a unified point of awareness where 'void' and 'form' meet... that point being the empty mind ground.

    Am I remotely close?

    He responded:

    The gap between thoughts is a doorway to what lies behind and underlays the thought process. Most have no idea that there are gaps between thoughts, as this fact must be directly experienced even if the theory is clearly understood. Insight must be developed to 'look' through the gap between thoughts. This requires longterm meditation and the building of inner strength. Give up theorising and settle down to practical work. Assume the meditation posture (like Hui Neng) and 'look within'. Use the Altar Sutra for guidance.

    Not much to go on but something nonetheless...

  • KeromeKerome Love, love is mystery The Continent Veteran
    edited March 22

    This is an area then where a teacher would be of great help. Adrian is pointing the way toward practice, but finding a good starting point for what you are trying to do is perhaps not straightforward. Do you even know if encountering the empty mind ground is something that can be achieved in the short term or whether it is going to involve a lengthy path?

    It is also often useful to keep in mind that understanding is not experiencing. Even if your theoretical understanding is perfect, it may take years of practice to achieve it in reality, and that theoretical understanding may work against you. It may cause the mind to start fabricating what you expect to see.

    johnathan
  • johnathanjohnathan ICBI Canada Veteran

    Ya... a teacher would be nice... so I don't know the answer to that.

    I found the following on another site: https://chanbuddhismuk.proboards.com/thread/38/chan-digest-archive?page=5

    (It demonstrates that Ch’an students should not be attached to the external, formal representations prevalent in their lifetime, but rather should consistently strive to realise the essence of all passing and changing phenomena, and through compassion and insight, penetrate to the empty Mind Ground)...

    ... (The student assumes the ‘host’ position by realising the empty Mind Ground – and through further training abandons completely the false dichotomy of ‘host’ and ‘guest’ – assuming what the old masters referred to as the ‘host-in-host’ position. Although the Ch’an master is ‘free’ in all circumstances, he still exists within a world that the deluded view as ‘dualistic’. As an expedient, he appears to assume the ‘host’ so that the student can assume the ‘guest’ – in this way an enlightened order is brought to a chaotic world. Once this order is established, the enlightening procedure can unfold.)...

    ... (once the empty Mind Ground is fully realised and penetrated, the klesa associated with a continued physical existence are controlled and managed. As long as there is a physical body, there will be karma associated with it – even if the mind has fully cognised its own essence and realised that all things are created through karmic habit. It is true that the experiencing of enlightenment greatly reduces klesa – or layers of obscuration – in the mind, leading to a greater wisdom, compassion and understanding, but what is interesting for many practitioners of the ‘direct’ paths is how klesa is managed within the enlightenment experience itself.)...

    ... (The Ch’an method requires the penetration of the surface phenomena (either pure or impure) into the empty essence that lies therein. By successfully penetrating the empty Mind Ground, all 12 dhuta rules are kept in a manner that does not set-up a duality that is the basis of all suffering. If the empty essence of one Dhuta rule is realised (through diligent practice) then the empty essence of all things is automatically attained.)...

    This is really above my experience to make heads or tails of...

  • VimalajātiVimalajāti Veteran Whitby, Ontario Veteran
    edited March 22

    The mind-ground, 心地, is just the mind represented as a ground, or area, or realm, metaphorically. The "realm" of the mind is the myriad phenomena that the mind takes as object. This mind is also being represented as a bhūmi, the starting-point bhūmi we all can't help but be on, and the bhūmi we "return" to with Buddhic perspective at the end, the 10 bhūmyaḥ (grounds) being a mere way back to the one bhūmi that was/is never acquired:

    The Tathagata always says: ‘All you bhikṣus, know that the Dharma I teach is like in the parable of the raft. The Dharma should, nevertheless, be abandoned. [...]'

    (Diamond Sūtra, T235.749b7, translation by Venerable Yifa)

    That's how I've been told this term operates. It appears as a feature of Chinese apocrypha AFAIK and doesn't appear in Indian texts. Not that Indian = Buddhist, Chinese = not Buddhist.

    If it further helps, the "Altar Sutra" you were directed to is more commonly called the "Platform Sutra."

    It's interesting he says "give up theorizing" and suggests you read the Platform Sutra, which is likely to introduce a lot of new theories and thoughts. I'd do it anyways, though. And who am I to disagree even if I thought I ought?

    johnathanlobster
  • KeromeKerome Love, love is mystery The Continent Veteran

    It’s always tricky taking up a new direction, especially when you have not met a teacher. But I wouldn’t get discouraged. It seems to me that the thing to do is to start a practice, as Adrian suggested, without getting too caught up in theory. Whatever you do, good luck!

    johnathan
  • johnathanjohnathan ICBI Canada Veteran

    @Vimalajāti

    Ha! More likely to cause more theorizing!!!

    I know it as the Sutra of Huineng

    Thanks for your response... I have plenty to theorize about now... must wait to do that after I sit for a bit.

  • ShoshinShoshin No one in particular Nowhere Special Veteran

    The gap between thoughts is a doorway to what lies behind and underlays the thought process. Most have no idea that there are gaps between thoughts, as this fact must be directly experienced even if the theory is clearly understood. Insight must be developed to 'look' through the gap between thoughts. This requires longterm meditation and the building of inner strength. Give up theorising and settle down to practical work. Assume the meditation posture (like Hui Neng) and 'look within'. Use the Altar Sutra for guidance.

    When the intellect ventures into where it does not belong, it becomes lost in its own confusion

  • johnathanjohnathan ICBI Canada Veteran

    @Kerome @Vimalajāti

    This article does not mention the Empty Mind Ground but explains the process of attaining it.

    https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.lionsroar.com/you-are-already-enlightened/amp/

    @Shoshin that's a valid point, thanks.

    ShoshinVimalajāti
  • VimalajātiVimalajāti Veteran Whitby, Ontario Veteran
    edited March 23

    Hongaku! 本覺! Mūlabodhi! Root Gnosis! Original Enlightenment!

    That's a tricky business, because why practice? Tendai-shū and the New Kamakura schools in Japan had/have a long and hard time dealing with hongaku. It's a normative position in Zen and some Chán.

    It's one of the more difficult doctrines for me, I will say. I don't practice Zen, because this, the notion of "you are already enlightened," doesn't jive with me. Everyone has their peculiarities.

    lobster
  • johnathanjohnathan ICBI Canada Veteran

    We practice because the enlightenment that is already there has been obstructed my the same obstructions one tries to "let go of" to attain an enlightenment that is not there... we were born pure and with buddha-nature... we experienced life which created obstacles... we need to liberate ourselves from those obstacles to see again what has always been.

  • VimalajātiVimalajāti Veteran Whitby, Ontario Veteran

    Well, that begs the question: if there is obstruction on account of obstacles, is that enlightenment?

    It's a tough one. One that I certainly can't answer.

  • johnathanjohnathan ICBI Canada Veteran

    Yes it is all conjecture... think of it this way though... if I have a glass of pure clear water and plop a glob of mud into it and stir it up... the water is still there even if I cannot see its purity and even though I wouldn't drink it. If I let it sit still for a long time the mud and debris will eventually settle and the pure water, which was always there is now able for me to see and drink...

    Not sure that was worded well enough. Its passed my bed time.

  • KeromeKerome Love, love is mystery The Continent Veteran

    I’ve always felt ambiguous about the idea of enlightenment already being present. One of the teachings I connect strongly with is the idea of the Three Poisons, but if we were already enlightened, then where do the Three Poisons come from? Were they not also originally there?

    The whole thing sits a bit uneasily for me. I understand your metaphor @johnathan but I’m not sure I understand the place of the phenomenon of enlightenment in it. But then, it is a question of how much we wish to understand and how much we think that understanding is necessary.

    For me, a lot of these things feel like lore, the teachings of ancient Buddhist masters who were trying to make theory out of their experiences. But your experiences, your inner world, may be different from theirs. I’m not sure how much their theories will help you, once you really gain some insight into the makeup of your being.

  • johnathanjohnathan ICBI Canada Veteran
    edited March 23

    Well to further the analogy... not to argue the point... as I do not know either way...

    You said, "but if we were already enlightened, then where do the Three Poisons come from"

    Maybe the glass and adding mud was a bad way to demonstrate the theory... perhaps more like a lake or pond or even a puddle... one minute the water is clear and pristine... then life trudges through and disturbed the mud at the bottom, clouding and making murky the clean water above... with time and stillness the mud settles and the water is again pure...

    We are born with the pure water and the mud... life happens and trudges up our emotions and views... one needs to learn to settle the mud so to speak.

  • johnathanjohnathan ICBI Canada Veteran
    edited March 23

    I don't perceive enlightenment to be some magical mind devoid of the 3 poisons, as though they no longer exist... they are still there... the enlightened person is just not effected by them... they are able to settle the mud in the moment to moment stirrings of life.

  • johnathanjohnathan ICBI Canada Veteran

    @Kerome said:
    This is an area then where a teacher would be of great help. Adrian is pointing the way toward practice, but finding a good starting point for what you are trying to do is perhaps not straightforward. Do you even know if encountering the empty mind ground is something that can be achieved in the short term or whether it is going to involve a lengthy path?

    I found Adrian's account of his progress and seems that it took him about 10 years with guidance from a teacher. So, possibly, not something I could attain on my own... Although, I am not so concerned with reaching any stages... clearing my mind and controlling thoughts would make the practice more than worth while.

    https://wenshuchan-online.weebly.com/chan-blog-373232282336947/category/5-stages

  • lobsterlobster Veteran Veteran

    I think the Empty Mind Ground refers to the quiet space between thoughts.

    'between' and in the thoughts too.
    Emptiness is form and Form is emptiness, as the Mahayana tell us. How so?

    I completely agree with the need for the experiential. Therefore the first understanding is not of Empty Mind Ground but Full Clouded Sky or monkey mind. We have to gently pause, slow or occupy awareness. This first calming develops our confidence/faith that an underlying stillness is present. 💗🙏🏽🌈

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