The enlightenment of Gaofeng Yung

I have created a separate post for this enlightenment story, translated by Jeffrey Broughton in his Ch’an Whip Anthology, because my first post, Enlightenment experiences of Zen masters, was already too long, and because this one includes the taking of vows and successful koan practice.

Gaofeng arrived at his monastery resolved in his mind that he would die to the world within three years. Making a vow to awaken within a specific period of time is very effective, and in fact he had an awakening at the end of the three years. He then made a new vow to throw away any ambitions he might have had for his life, even if it meant becoming a “stupid Han,” a nobody, in order to attain the ultimate clarity.

After his awakening, Gaofeng’s master gave him a different case to work on, which was to remain focused on effortlessness and stillness—two characteristics of the highest state. (See Lester Levenson: Identify with what you really are for other descriptive words.)

Broughton uses the expression “the man in charge” to translate a metaphysical concept of the Self that Lin-chi called the “true man of no rank” (Gaofeng was of Lin-chi’s lineage). Elsewhere in this blog I changed Broughton’s “man in charge” to “superior man” or “higher self,” and this is the Self that you really are. This Self is not a larger version of your ego-self, but Atman (Hindu) or Mind (Chinese), which encompasses all that there is. There is only one “I”—viviktadharma—and you are it.


Chan Master Gaofeng Yuan of Mount Tianmu (1238-1295)

I left home at fifteen, and at twenty changed into Ch’an robes, entering Jingci Monastery (in Hangzhou). Vowing to die within three years, I trained in Ch’an. At first I investigated with Preceptor Duanqiao, who made me investigate the cue: “At birth where do you come from and at death where do you go?” I made an effort but my thought was divided into two paths, and my mind did not become established in oneness. Later I met Preceptor Xueyan, who taught me to focus at all times on (Chao-chou’s) Wu. Also, he ordered me to walk around the embankment (of willow trees) once every day. He said, “You should be like a person on the road—every day he must see to the schedule of tasks.” I saw that there was a clue in what he had to say. Later he would not ask me about the investigation I was doing. One time when I entered his room, he immediately asked, “Who comes hauling this corpse of yours? Before his voice had even died down, he gave me a whack. After this I returned to the Hall of Jingshan. In a dream, I suddenly remembered Duanqiao’s “The ten-thousand things return to the One; to what does this One return?” After this the sensation of indecision and apprehension suddenly arose; I could not distinguish east from west or south from north. On the sixth day I was in the hall chanting sutras with the sangha, and raising my head I suddenly caught sight of the inscription on a portrait of Wuzu Fayan. The last two lines read, “A hundred years—thirty-six thousand days—pass by; always this Han (man).” Suddenly I smashed the cue I had heard from Xueyan of “who is hauling this corpse around.” The culmination was that I was frightened out of my senses, but after the cutting off I was restored to life. It went beyond laying down a pole with a 120-pound load. At this time I was just twenty-four; my vow of three-years had been fulfilled.

After that I was asked, “Every day in your numerous activities are you able to maintain the superior man?” I answered, “I am able to do so.” He also asked, “While asleep and dreaming are you able to maintain the superior man? I answered, “I am able to do so.” He also asked, “At the point of dreamless sleep, where is the superior man?” At that point I had no words with which to answer, no logic that I could express. Preceptor Xueyan enjoined me, “From now on it is not necessary for you to study the teaching and to investigate to the limit the ancient and modern cases; it’s just a matter of eating when hungry and sleeping when tired. The moment you’ve awakened from sleep, rouse your energies, then remain focused on, “While I am asleep, in the end just what is the place where my superior man attains ease (effortlessness) and becomes still?”

I made a new vow: “I will cast my life away and become a stupid Han; I will be sure to see this one great matter through to clarity.” Five years passed, and one day as I awoke from sleep I was right in the midst of a great ball of doubt about this matter. A fellow monk pushed a wooden head-rest off the platform, and it made a noise as it hit the floor. Suddenly I smashed the ball of doubt—it was just like leaping out of a net. All of the intricate and confusing cases of the buddhas and patriarchs and all of the stories of ancient times and the present—every one of them was crystal-clear. From then on, “the provinces were pacified and the country stabilized, and there was a great peace throughout the realm.” In a single instant of no-thought, everything in the ten directions was severed.

“A Million Miles Away” by the Plimsouls

Broughton, Jeffrey L. (2015). The Chan Whip Anthology. New York: Oxford University Press (pp. 93-96).

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