Ts'an Patriarch Ch'an


- Due to the fact that the different parts on this website have been presented separately, some footnotes may appear repetitive.

- Except for the ones clearly marked with "translated from Master Wei Lis original", all footnotes are given by the translators.

- Notes between square brackets are given by the translators.


There might be places where the translators were not able to render into English the quintessence of what Master Wei Li wished to share with others. There might also be places where errors were made and went undetected. In those cases, the generosity of the reader is respecfully requested.


Master Wei Lis Disciples





Patriarch Ch'an [1] is the direct method of Ch'an personally handed down by Sakyamuni Buddha to the First Patriarch Mahakasyapa. The method was then transmitted from one patriarch to another, to the Second Patriarch Ananda, to the Third Patriarch Sanavasa, and so on...

Bodhidharma, the 28th patriarch in the Indian tradition, brought this method to China. He is considered the first patriarch in the Chinese Ch'an tradition. The second patriarch was a Chinese named Hui K'o. The successors in the lineage are the Third Patriarch Seng Ts'an, the Fourth Patriarch Tao Hsin, the Fifth Patriarch Hung Jen, and the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng who was also the last patriarch.


Many people misunderstand and take Buddhism for a superstitious religion. However, from a practical point of view, Buddhism is an educational system. This system teaches the Mind-Dharma [2] leading to ultimate enlightenment. This education covers the ten thousand things [3] in the universe, with no exclusion. The core idea of this education is that all things come from the Mind.

Because the Mind is the origin of all things, Sakyamuni Buddha said that "all things are created by the Mind."


So what is the Mind? Mind is a word spoken by anybody, but known to no one. The 14th patriarch in the Indian tradition Ch'an, Nagarjuna Bodhisattva, used the phrase "emptiness without even the notion of emptiness" [4] as a parable of the Mind. The Mind, by nature, has no form and is beyond measurement. Therefore, it cannot be approached through the thinking process of the brain and cannot be described by words. So "Emptiness" is the only barely and reluctantly acceptable term used in Buddhist teachings to refer to the Mind.

"Emptiness" in Buddhism is not to be taken in a negative way as something nihilistic. Without emptiness, the Mind cannot manifest its functions. We can see that this "emptiness without even the notion of emptiness" accommodates everything in the universe. From the moon to the sun, to mountains, rivers, lands, houses, trees, everything and anything relies on this "emptiness without even the notion of emptiness" to be accommodated and to function. Our daily activities such as eating, dressing, talking, hosting guests, working are all made possible thanks to this "without even the notion of emptiness". Unfortunately, we use it everyday without realizing it. For this reason, Sakyamuni Buddha teaches this direct method of Ch'an so that everyone can realize their own true Mind. The moment we realize our Mind is called "seeing our true nature and attaining the Buddhahood."

Even though we talk about becoming a Buddha, there is really no Buddhahood to reach. It is just to awake from our open-eye dreams [5]. When we wake up from the closed-eye dreams [6] we had in sleep, we recognize that all things encountered in the dreams are not real. In a similar way, the realization when waking up from open-eye dreams is called enlightenment. Another term used for this experience is "attaining the Buddhahood."


The following is a brief description of the practice of ts'an Patriarch Ch'an, which is to ts'an hua tou and k'an hua tou.

Hua means words, tou is prior to. Hua tou is used to describe the moment before any idea is formed. Once a thought arises, we are already at the tail [end] of the words.

When we ts'an, we ask the word to stir up the not-knowing. When we k'an, we to look at that not-knowing to see what it is. Since not-knowing has no place, we have no target to look at. So we keep looking but see nothing, and still know nothing [7]. In Ch'an terminology, this not-knowing is named Ch'an doubt. When the practitioners ts'an Chan, they continue asking and looking simultaneously to maintain the doubt. This doubt will eventually take practitioners to the hua tou.

Hua tou is the wu shih wu ming [beginningless ignorance]. It is also called the "top of the 100-foot pole" or the origin of consciousness. From the top of this 100-foot pole, the practitioner just makes one more step forward, and at that instant, he departs from the realm of consciousness. This ksana [8] of leaving the realm of consciousness is called "seeing the real nature and attaining the Buddhahood." In other words, the Prajna manifests throughout space and time, and our knowing is now omniscient. In the Doctrinal Schools [9], this omniscience is called Samyaksambodhi [genuine and complete enlightenment.]





As we are talking about a method of practice, we would better think about the importance of practicing. When we first start, a lot of things are hard to understand, let alone to accept. Please practice, practice, practice.


[1] Patriarch Ch'an: As this method is not practiced in Japan, the term Zen is not used here [What is Zen? 'Zen' is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word 'Ch'an', and 'Ch'an' is the abbreviation of the original phrase 'Ch'an Na' a corruption of the pronunciation of the Sanskrit word Dhyana or the Pali, Jhana. Chang Chen-Chi, The Practice of Zen.]    <<<

Please do not take this for Soshi Zen [which is a Japanese term in its romanized form] even if the Chinese characters for Soshi Zen and Patriarch Ch'an are the same. The practice of Soshi Zen is based on the knowing. The practice of Patriarch Ch'an is based on the not-knowing.


[2] Mind-Dharma:

Mind: The Chinese word H'sin is one of the most difficult words to translate into English. It can mean: mind, heart, nature, original nature, essence, etc.

Dharma: The Sanskrit word Dharma has several different meanings: norm, law, doctrine, justice, righteouness, quality, thing, object of mind, phenomenon.   <<<


[3] Ten thousand: Ten thousand is used in the sense of all, complete, so many as to be innumerable. Its use is similar to the use of the number 84 or eighty four thousand in the Indian culture.    <<<


[4] "emptiness without even the notion of emptiness": The suggested meaning of the Chinese phrase "hsu kung wu so yu" which could be literally translated as : "emptiness which does not exist," "emptiness which is not," "emptiness with nothing."    <<<


[5] Open-eye dreams: Things experienced in the dreams we have when we sleep appear to be very real. But when we wake up, we know that they are not. These dreams are called closed-eye dreams. Things experienced in our daily life also appear to be very real. We need to enlighten ourselves to be able to recognize that they are not. These unreal things with a very real appearance are said of as happening in our open-eye dreams.    <<<


[6] Closed-eye dreams: Dreams we have while sleeping [closed-eye]. We all have some dreams when we sleep. Sometimes we are so scared in our dream that when we wake up, our heart is still beating very fast. Sometimes we are so sad in our dream that when we wake up, we can find tears on the pillows. The things we encounter in our dreams looked real, very real. In our dream, if someone tells us that the things are not real, that everything is just within the dream, we are not going to believe him. How could they not be real? People love me, and I am happy; people beat me, and I feel pain... But when we wake up, we recognize that everything in the dreams was not real.

Please read The Heart Sutra for more explanation.    <<<


[7] Ts'an hua tou and k'an hua tou: for more details on this practice, please read The Practice of Ts'an Patriarch Ch'an.    <<<


[8] Ksana: The Sanskrit term for an extremely short unit of time, just a very small portion of a second.    <<<


[9] Doctrinal Schools: Chan does not rely on texts or writings. Doctrinal Schools emphasize instruction based on the written canon.    <<<