Here's How to Handle Zen Sickness If You're Lucky Enough to Ever Get That Far: Let's Examine the Case of Zen Master Han Shan

The Zen master Han Shan, after he had achioeved an extremely profound state of samadhi, one day just happened to glance at a book of poems for just a moment. As soon as he flipped through the pages to examine them, the poems stimulated his thinking processes, and he started to write twenty or thirty poems in quick succession. In fact, it was as if a dam had burst, for now his thinking processes could not be stopped, and the words flew out of him as if all his pores were mouths spouting syllables!

As Han Shan reported of his experience,

Imperceptibly, all the literary prose, poems and verses which I had read or written before appeared in front of me and crowded and filled space. They could not have been ejected even if my body had been nothing but open mouths, I did not even know what my body and mind were. I pondered closely over all this and felt as if my body were about to rise. I had no alternative but to let things take their course.

The following day when the viceroy left, prefect Hu escorted him, and I was left alone. I thought of my experience and said to myself: 'This is exactly the Ch'an sickness that master Fa Kuang told me about. Now I have caught it, and who can cure it? What I can do now is to sleep and if it is deep I will be lucky.' I then closed the door and tried to sleep. At first I could not, but a long while later I felt as if I were sleeping while seated. A boy servant knocked at the door and pushed it but received no answer. When prefect Hu returned, he learned of this and ordered that the window be broken for the studio to be entered. I was seated, wrapped in my robe. He called me but I did not answer. He shook me but I did not move.

There was a Buddha shrine in the studio, and there was a small musical instrument called a ch'ing on the table. (One day previous to this deep sleep) prefect Hu had picked up that instrument and asked me: 'What is it and what is its use?' I had told him: 'In the West (i.e. India) when a monk enters the state of Samadhi and cannot waken from it, this instrument is used to awaken him.' Prefect Hu suddenly remembered what I had told him and now said: 'Venerable Master, are you in the state of Samadhi?' He took the instrument, and, holding it close to my ear, struck it a few tens of times. I was slowly and gradually awakened. When I opened my eyes, I did not know where I was. The prefect said: 'Immediately after I left, you shut the door, and this is the fifth day. What have you been doing?' I replied: 'I do not know, and this is my first breath.'

After saying this I sat silent and reflected carefully, but I failed to realise where I was and from where I had come. I looked back to my stay on the mountain and my past journeys and all those events were like things seen in a dream; after searching, not a thing could be found (in my now stilled mind). All that previously had been in tumult in the great void was now as (still as) when the rains have passed and all the clouds dispersed. The air seemed thoroughly cleansed and everything was perfectly tranquil without a single appearance of shadows or images. The mind was empty and the surrounding objects were still; the resultant bliss was without compare. I said to myself [quoting the Bodhisattva Manjusri in the Surangama Sutra]:

'In utter purity, the bright light pervades all,
With its shining stillness enfolding the great void.
Worldly things, when closely looked at,
Are but illusions seen in dreams.'

These words spoken by the Buddha are true and not deceitful.

(Practical Buddhism, Charles Luk, pp. 84-85)


Zen master Huang Long Hsin once told his student Ling Yuang Ching, "Those who get dharma emptiness will be very joyous at first. This could eventually lead to distraction and restlessness so let them have a sound sleep."

Only advanced cultivation adepts encounter the experience of Zen sickness recounted by master Han Shan Zen and master Huang Long Hsin. If this happens to you and you become attached to all the thoughts breaking forth, it can easily disrupt your spiritual attainments. The reason Han Shan could identify this rare problem in the first place was because he had previously visited Zen master Fa Kuang, who had a peculiar habit of humming, and talking and gesticulating all the time.

When Han Shan had asked the master about the problem, he was told that this was the result of the Zen sickness which Master Fa Kuang had experienced upon his first awakening. At that time, the words flowed out of him effortlessly, and because he did not have access to a learned master at the time who might have helped him "by beating [him] unconscious," so he never fell asleep so that upon awakening, his mind would have become clear.

Han Shan solved his Zen sickness by falling asleep, which is the standard cure, but what if you cannot sleep? What do you then do to solve this situation?

If you cannot sleep and you are allowed to drink alcohol (some monks are not allowed to do this), you might drink some wine so that you get drowsy. This will numb the brain and then you will be able to fall asleep. So you can either fall to sleep without help, or drink a bit so that you get drowsy and fall asleep.

Another means to solve this problem, for those who are already high stage practitioners who have mastered continual presence of mind and absence of clinging, is to just let this phenomenon die out naturally. However, this type of solution is well beyond the capabilities of normal practitioners, and only the great Buddhas and Bodhisattvas can use this particular route of practice. It is only for documentation's sake that we mention it so as to preserve the knowledge of this possibility for the few great ones who will come along in time. For everyone else, our original advice applies that you should try to fall asleep through drinking some wine and becoming drowsy. When the dammed up seeds of the alaya consciousness come rushing forth like this because the volition skandha gets suddenly stirred, drinking and then falling into a sound sleep is the safest solution for most all spiritual practitioners.

My teacher recommends drinking a little wine to fall asleep, or focusing one's attention so as not to become mentally scattered. One has to avoid earthly things. One should cultivate an immortal fetus until the fruit of the Tao has ripened and then later, strive to realize that all earthly appearances are indistinct from reality, and then one can practice in this world as well as dwell in the world beyond. This is mastering the dharma of self-emptiness and the emptiness of phenomena.

Why does this phenomenon occur? Because the alaya consciousness stores the seeds of everything we have ever done, and like a river or waterfall it is always flowing, flowing, flowing without stop. If you reach a state of calm, settled peacefulness, sometimes these verbal seeds of literature and poetry will sprout forth from just a nudge, like a fish that leaps out of a pool of calm water. When that happens, maybe you will find yourself speaking words in another language, or becoming extremely poetic in your expressions.

All of this is due to the onrushing seeds of the alaya suddenly rising to the surface. In fact, this helps explain why some people can often spontaneously speak in foreign tongues or learn them quite quickly, because the seeds of this experience are still present in the alaya consciousness, and something activates them so that they can issue forth. Naturally, sometimes it's just psychological nonsense as well.

The situation of Zen sickness is not something you should desire, and certainly not something you want to force into occurring. Since it is a trouble or affliction, you want to avoid it if you can, but the important thing is that there is a remedy if it occurs. Think of it in terms of when children are born with the ability to play the piano or speak languages without prior study, for in these instances where previously planted seeds of the alaya have been activated. This is exactly what we have here. When we start upon our spiritual practice, sometimes we obtain quick progress because the cultivation seeds we have planted in the past become reactivated, and all our present work in this life is in turn planting good seeds for future accomplishments.

Countless Chinese Zen masters have had experiences similar to Han Shan's Zen sickness, but they rarely recorded these things because, unlike the masters in India or Tibet, they never considered them that important. Han Shan, like Zen master Hui-neng, did not even write his own autobiography. Rather, his students recorded everything for him. The fact that the Chinese practitioners did not stress this type of event-which we will notice once again when we review the story of the Tibetan master Gampopa--is exactly the reason why Bodhidharma said that the Mahayana path could flourish in China. The Zen school could produce so many enlightened adepts because they ignored this type of phenomena from the beginning to the end.



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