How to Practice Chan in Daily Life

Last year, I had been invited to attend a conference on Chan, which I wrote about here in another entry. So this year, I felt that I would like to contribute something to the discussion. I wrote an article which a Chinese graduate student, Han Qing, translated into Chinese from English. Most of the people who attended were academics, who presented their papers. The main issue was the history of Chan in that area of China. It was in Hubei Province, where Dao Xin, the 4th Ancestor had the first temple devoted exclusively to the Chan school, since there were many other sects of Buddhism in China going back to the first century. His disciple, Hong Ren started another temple, now called Wu Zu Si, or 5th Ancestor Temple, and it was there that a young Hui Neng arrived, later to become the 6th Ancestor.  Now, in the same small city where Hui Neng gave many of his teachings,  the 3rd Annual Conference on Chan Culture took place, and I presented the following paper.

How to Practice Chan in Daily Life

1 Expression of Gratitude

I would like to thank Jing Hui Fashi, Ming Ji Fashi, and the organizers of this conference on Chan in daily Life for the chance to participate. I also want to thank all the many warmhearted Chinese people I have met who have made my practice of Buddhism in China possible. I would also like to send a long distance bow of gratitude to my teacher, Nelson Foster, for his kind instruction and support.

2 Disclaimer

Before continuing, please let me make a disclaimer, that I am presenting my own opinions, and am not a scholar or teacher,, just a student of the  Way, offering some observations that I have found useful.

3 Introduction

Of course, the topic of our conference is “Chan in Daily Life,”, and I was recently reminded of a talk given by a Korean Chan monk on the Diamond Sutra. He pointed out, that the Sutra’s first Chapter includes this passage:

One day before dawn, the Buddha clothed himself, and along with his disciples took up his alms bowl and entered the city to beg for food door to door, as was his custom.

After he had returned and eaten, he put away his bowl and cloak, bathed his feet, and then sat with his legs crossed and body upright upon the seat arranged for him.

He began mindfully fixing his attention in front of himself,


The monk pointed out that this passage includes the entire sutra. Why? Because it states clearly and simply, how the Buddha conducted his daily activity.

It is said that there were, in the time of the Buddha, 500 Arhats, that is, people who had totally stopped the chain of karma, and would no longer be reborn. At that time there were not so many people in the world, so how could there be so many Enlightened Beings? Nowadays, with so many people practicing, there must be many hundreds or thousands of such beings, and also many Bodhisattvas. Yet, in response to a question about how many Buddhist practitioners have a real initial experience of Enlightenment, Kubota Roshi, a Japanese teacher said that only about 5-10 percent of people who attend Chan Qi have such an experience, and only 5% of those people can answer all the Gong An (Koans).

The probable reason for this is that life then, 2500 years ago, was a lot simpler.

The Diamond Sutra did not say, “The Buddha arose, turned on his Ipad, checked his email, checked his text messages and missed phone calls from his many disciples, then fired up his computer to check the latest news”! The Buddha did one thing at a time. He didn’t multitask!

His physical actions were all done mindfully, with awareness. And he was also aware of his emotional and mental activities. So nowadays, as we self cultivate, we too can be mindful, that is, we pay attention to our bodily actions. The first thing we do, hopefully, when we wake up is to immediately bring attention to our body, and our breathing. However, if we notice ourselves thinking, then we are mindful of the fact that we are thinking.

4 Mindful Arising and the Importance of Daily Sitting Chan

We go to the wash room, attend to our personal needs, and mindfully brush our teeth, wash our face, and then, perhaps do some mindful stretching to bring some flexibility to our body. Then, take some time to sit. Why is sitting so important in the development of Chan in daily life? Because it is so simple, that it frees us from the usual daily complications of talking, planning and so on. We pay attention to our breathing, or to our body, or perhaps to our Hua Tou or Gong An. Nowhere else to go, nothing else to do, Emptiness can arise and we can enjoy the simple joy of Chan, just as it is!

We try to set a regimen of time that we devote to sitting Chan, whatever we find works, be it 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, or perhaps longer.

5 Mindful Eating

Just before we eat, we can take a few seconds to be mindful of the fact that we are eating.

Most people notice if they are hungry, but few are willing to ‘feel’ hungry for the short time it takes to look at our food, and feel grateful for it! We may even say a short poem, such as my American teacher taught me, “We venerate the Three Treasures and are thankful for this food, the work of many people and the sharing of other forms of life”

Before we eat the rice, do we consider all the incredibly hard work of the farmers who planted the rice, took care of it, dug the fields to water it, and then harvest, thresh, dry bag, transport it so we could eat it? If we eat animal products, what about the life of the animal, what it went through, probably not a very easy life, penned in with thousands of other animals and then killed so that we will not go hungry and weak?

6 Cultivating the Social Emotions of Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy and Equanimity

We probably have interactions with family members or housemates. Do we pay attention as we busily prepare for our day, that they have their own life experiences that they are dealing with? Can we use the lens of Harmony as we conduct behavior?

We are not separate selves! When we act with Chan mind, we encourage others, whether they know it or not, to awaken their own Chan Mind!

7 The Challenge of Mindful Chan Living in Modern Society

One of the biggest challenges nowadays in maintaining mindfulness is the use of mass media and mass marketing, which is specifically designed to make us think or do or feel or buy what other people want us to, So, as we walk down the street, look straight ahead, and don’t get too distracted by the billboards and other enticements. When we are in the shop or supermarket, when something catches our eye, ask the simple question, “Do I need this? Do I want this?” We can then avoid impulsive, thoughtless purchases of stuff that is often useless. When we spend money, what are we spending it on? Is it useful, will it support life or is it wasteful?

Cooking our own food is a healthy alternative to eating fast food, especially from the big name popular chains. Their meals are designed to taste good, but not for good nutrition, regardless of what they may want you to think. So eat healthy food,

These are just some of many examples of how we can practice mindful awareness in our daily life. Chan is the cultivation of conscious living, these are some suggestions.

Buddhism is wonderful because it provides so many useful tools to hone our mindfulness.

8 Importance of the Precepts

One of the best is the 5 precepts.

One list of the 5 precepts is as follows:

 5 Precepts

  • To not kill living beings
  • To not take what is not given
  • To not act sexually in a way that is harmful
  • To not lie, slander, use harsh words, or gossip
  • To not partake of drugs and alcohol
    which lead to further confusion

It is unfortunately true that people break the precepts for personal gain at the expense of others. While the precepts are short and to the point, they can be interpreted broadly. For example, speaking harshly can kill a relationship. Using the work of another person without giving due credit is a form of stealing. Cheating on a spouse or using power as a means of seduction are both forms of misusing sex. Speaking untruthfully, or slandering others can destroy the trust which holds a group of people together in harmony. And it is not just drugs or alcohol, but addiction in all its forms—gambling, watching too much television, shopping for things one really doesn’t need, even working compulsively as a ‘Workaholic’—all these take us away from our true selves.

But we can be sure that breaking the precepts will usually result in lots of thinking, often negative thinking, such as guilt. That doesn’t even include illegal actions that can result in jail time, or worse! It’s been noted that the soldiers who commit suicide were those who often killed others, often innocent people, and later feel tremendous guilt.

We humans are hardwired to do Good, and sooner or later, face the ill effects of our bad actions. So let’s use the Precepts to guide our mindful actions!

9 The Importance of Critical Thinking

In our complex world, we are faced with many difficult decisions, yet this too is an opportunity for us to practice Chan in Daily Life. During the time of the Buddha, he once met some villagers from the place called Kalama. They approached him with the following problem. On successive days, various teachers would visit their village, praise their own teaching while deprecating others’. Confused, they asked the Buddha for his advice. Perhaps we would have expected the Buddha to say, “well of course, I am the Buddha, and I have the perfect teaching!”

That is not what happened. He sympathized with their dilemma, and advised them the following:

Do not blindly believe what is written in your holy books, or spoken by Authority, or what you hear rumored, or take for granted any other form of external advice, but on your own observation and analysis, if what is said conforms with reality and benefits all, then follow that approach. And if, on observation and analysis, something does not appear to be true, and appears to harm others, then reject that approach.


Buddhism is sometimes criticized as being simplistic, with the recitation of a mantra, or simply going to a temple and making offerings. However, a most important component of Buddhist practice, and Chan practice in daily life, is to constantly use our intelligence and critical thinking skill, to thoughtfully and mindfully make wise decisions. When you are at the supermarket, read the label. When you listen to some one, it is OK to respectfully ask questions.

If someone appears to be giving bad, or worse, fraudulent advice, trust yourself! They may not have your best interest in mind, but rather theirs. It is for this reason why our great Chan Teachers like Bodhidharma, or 6th Patriarch Hui Neng, and many others became our great teachers.

10 Conclusion

Finally, we must be patient with our selves, but not too lazy!  We will falter, we will make mistakes, as we go through our daily life, but we will remember that it is our aspiration to be bodhisattvas, even if it takes eons, and regardless the obstacles, that slowly, slowly we vow to refine our life, and face the Present Moment, Here and Now, with courage, honesty and good intention.

One of my great American teachers, Robert Aitken used to say, ‘We are all in this together… and we don’t have a lot of time.” To which I will close by saying, “let us all enjoy practicing Chan together, support each other, as we find our own way, to avoid doing harm, practice all good, and purify our minds.




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