The following is a description of the second stage of Chan (Zen) practice, taken from a talk by Chan Master Sheng Yen, in 1977. To read about the first and third stages, see the full transcript here.
“The first stage [of Chan practice] only helps to bring concentration to your confused mind; but when you practice concentration, other scattered thoughts continue to appear in your mind – sometimes many, sometimes a few. The concept of your purpose in practicing Chan is for mental and physical benefits. This is a stage where your concept is purely self-centered. There is no mention of philosophical ideals or religious experience. When you reach the second stage, it will enable you to liberate yourself from the narrow view of the “I”.
In the second stage you begin to enter the stage of meditation. When you practice the method of cultivation taught by your teacher, you will enlarge the sphere of the outlook of the small “I” until it coincides with time and space. The small “I” merges into the entire universe, forming a unity. When you look inward, the depth is limitless; when you look outward, the breadth is limitless.
Since you have joined and become one with universe, the world of your own body and mind no longer exists. What exists is the universe, which is infinite in depth and breadth. You yourself are not only a part of the universe, but also the totality of it.
When you achieve this experience in your Chan sitting, you will then understand what is meant in philosophy by principle or basic substance, and also what phenomenal existence is. All phenomena are the floating surface or perceptible layer of basic substance. From the shallow point of view, the phenomena have innumerable distinctions and each has different characteristics; in reality, the differences between the phenomena do not impair the totality of basic substance.
For instance, on the planet on which we live, there are countless kinds of animals, plants, minerals, vapors, liquids and solids which incessantly arise, change and perish, constituting the phenomena of the earth. However, seen from another planet, the earth is just one body. When we have the opportunity to free ourselves from the bonds of self or subjective views, to assume the objective standpoint of the whole and observe all phenomena together, we can eliminate opposing and contradictory views.
Take a tree as an example. From the standpoint of the individual leaves and branches, they are all distinct from one another, and can also be perceived to rub against one another. However, from the standpoint of the trunk and roots, all parts without exception are of one unified whole.
In the course of this second stage, you have realized that you not only have an independent individual existence, but you also have a universal existence together with this limitlessly deep and wide cosmos, and therefore the confrontation between you and the surrounding environment exists no more. Discontent, hatred, love, desire – in other words dispositions of rejecting and grasping disappear naturally, and you sense a feeling of peace and satisfaction.
Because you have eliminated the selfish small “I”, you are able to look upon all people and all things as if they were phenomena produced from your own substance, and so you will love all people and all things in the same way you loved and watched over your small “I”. This is the mind of a great philosopher.
Naturally, all great religious figures must have gone through the experiences of this second stage, where they free themselves from the confines of the small “I”, and discover that their own basic substance is none other than the existence of the entire universe, and that there is no difference between themselves and everything in the universe.
All phenomena are manifestations of their own nature. They have the duty to love and watch over all things, and also have the right to manage them; just as we have the duty to love our own children and the right to manage the property that belongs to us. This is the formation of the relationship between the deity and the multitude of things he created.
Such people personify the basic substance of the universe which they experience through meditation, and create the belief in God. They substantiate this idea of a large “I” the self-love of God and formulate the mission of being a savior of the world or an emissary of God. They unify all phenomena and look upon them as objects that were created and are to be saved.
Consequently, some religious figures think that the basic nature of their souls is the same as that of the deity, and that they are human incarnations of the deity. In this way, they consider themselves to be saviors of the world. Others think that although the basic nature of their souls is not identical to and inseparable from that of the deity, the phenomenon of their incarnation shows that they were sent to this world by God as messengers to promulgate God’s intention.
Generally, when philosophers or religious figures reach the height of the second stage, they feel that their wisdom is unlimited, their power is infinite, and their lives are eternal. When the scope of the “I” enlarges, self-confidence accordingly gets stronger, but this stronger self-confidence is in fact merely the unlimited escalation of a sense of superiority and pride. It is therefore termed large “I”, and does not mean that absolute freedom from vexations has been achieved.”
From: “What is Chan?” by Master Sheng Yen, Dharma Drum Retreat Center © 2014