I spent an enjoyable evening at the end of February in Bristol discussing Dhamma with Sally and Mike Masheder, both practitioners within the Western Chan Fellowship. Later we were joined by Gareth Fysh-Foskett a student completing a dissertation on Buddhism at the University.
The Western Chan fellowship follows the teachings of Master Hui-kong Sheng-yen of the Chinese Chan tradition. He has identified a number of Western Dharma heirs of whom John Crook, based in Maenllwyd in mid-Wales, is one. Chinese Chan is the tradition which led to Zen schools in Japan and is famously described as:
A special transmission outside the scriptures
No reliance on words or letters
Direct pointing to the heart of humanity
Seeing into ones own nature.
This is a bold and attractive statement, but one which raises a number of questions. The obvious one being what is the relationship between the Dhamma (teachings as embodied in scriptures) and the enlightenment experience? I am not sure that any mainstream Buddhist tradition would ever have claimed that enlightenment was an intellectual accumulation of information, or was dependent upon absorbing the right facts or involved the ‘worship’ of sacred texts.
It would seem, though, that the Buddha’s teachings both point towards and shape our understanding of what is an ineffable experience. It is a healthy instinct to question our reliance on ancient texts and to encourage a practical engagement and application of such teachings without developing a blind and possibly dogmatic attachment to them.
It would be possible to justify the assertion that at certain times in the 2500 years of the Buddhist tradition, individuals and schools have developed an unskilful relationship with scriptures, seeing them as infallible and sacred objects rather than invaluable guides for reflection and action. Or, interpreting the Buddhist path as closed in this degenerate age, and believing that all that is possible is to maintain certain scriptures and the letter of Buddhism rather than being able to apply teachings in the way originally intended. This belief can be found both in some Theravada circles as well as in more recent Mahahayana schools.
Such a belief - that enlightenment is now impossible - does obviously have a profound impact on subsequent behaviour. We can, however, be aware of our beliefs and recognise the uncertainty of such mental formations. This is the key to working with scriptures. They are very helpful pointers, but uncertain. They are for reflection and insight rather than 'worship' or turning into metaphysical truths.
The idea of lineage was amongst a number of subjects of discussion. Lineage is a way of increasing the likelihood of an authentic transmission of the Buddha’s teaching and of granting authority to teachers. If teachers can be traced back all the way to the Buddha himself, then this makes it more likely that what is taught today is based on real insight into the Buddha’s teaching. However, lineage is only part of the picture; other ways of checking a teacher’s insight include his or her behaviour and whether it is in accordance with practice, teachings and precepts.
Later as I prepared to sleep I read a little from 'Illuminating Silence' by Master Sheng Yen. I found much that resonated with my own Theravada practice. This seems a common experience. At the level of practice there is much agreement between Buddhist schools. It is at the level of doctrine and the intellect that differences arise.
Information on Western Chan Fellowship can be found at: http://www.westernchanfellowship.org/