Chan Master Sheng Yen wrote a good article on this subject. "Prerequisites for Chan Practice". Pretty long buy pretty good IMO.
Prerequisites for Chan Practice
By: Chan Master Sheng Yen
This article is reprinted from Chan Magazine. Fall 1998, p32-35. Based on several lectures by Shih Fu, edited by Dan Stevenson, adapted for NCF by John Crook.
The Chinese term for practising Chan is ts'an-ch'an, which means to investigate, engage, or dig into (ts'an) the heart or living enlightenment of the Chan tradition. It is often said in Chan that the door to Chan is "no door," that the method of Chan is "no method," or that the practice of Chan is "no practice." There is a famous story about Master Nan-yueh and his student, Ma-tsu. Upon finding Ma-tsu sitting intently in meditation, Nan-yueh picked up a piece of tile and began grinding it with a stone just outside Ma-tsu's hut.
Ma-tsu, somewhat annoyed, asked, "Why are you doing this?" Nan-yueh replied, "I am polishing the tile to make a mirror out of it."
In ancient times, mirrors were made of bronze and had to be regularly polished so that they would reflect. Ma-tsu said, "That's ridiculous, you can't make a mirror by polishing a piece of tile." To which Nan-yueh Huai-jang retorted sharply, "If you can't make a mirror by polishing a tile, how can you possibly become a Buddha by sitting in meditation?"
On another occasion, Lin-chi was sleeping soundly at the rear of the meditation hall, while the head monk sat sternly in meditation at the front of the hall. Master Huang-po came in and lightly tapped with his staff on the meditation platform where Lin-chi was seated. For a moment Lin-chi opened his eyes, looked up, and then went right back to sleep. Huang-po tapped the platform again and walked off. When he came to the head of the hall and saw the head monk meditating intently, he struck him a blow and said, "What do you think you are doing with all your deluded thoughts? That man back there at the rear of the hall is the one who is really meditating."
Lin-chi himself used to teach that one should make no artificial effort in practice but "simply be an ordinary person with nothing to do." Ma-tsu taught that "the ordinary everyday mind is the Way." Ta-chu, a disciple of Ma-tsu, is recorded as having asserted that our mind is the same as Buddha. For our mind to seek the Buddha is as unnecessary as the Buddha seeking the Buddha. Likewise our mind is identical to the Dharma. To use our mind to seek the Dharma is like the Dharma seeking the Dharma. That is also unnecessary. Buddha, mind, and sentient being are not different. There is no Buddha outside of the mind, no Dharma outside of the mind and no sentient beings outside either.
When we read such discourses on Chan, it seems that Buddhist tradition of the three disciplines - purity in observance of precepts of the Vinaya, and the cultivation of samadhi and wisdom through meditation - has been turned on its head. Does Chan really involve no practice or no discipline of any kind whatsoever? Yes, in certain respects Chan truly requires no learning, no practice, no effort whatsoever. If it did depend on such things, then it would not be Chan.
However, we are very active and artificial people, with far too many things to do. We must have discipline to help us put an end to deficient habits. For this reason it is not entirely correct to say that Chan involves no practice. There are indeed principles that must be followed.
Shen-hui, a disciple of the Sixth Patriarch Hui-neng, said that the precepts must be used to discipline one's actions. Likewise, recitation of Buddhist Sutras - especially the Diamond Sutra - and cultivation of samadhi should be used to eliminate defilements and calm our restless minds. Only then will the wisdom of no-thought that is inherent in one's original nature truly manifest.
Virtually all the major Chan masters and their followers observed the traditional Hinayana precepts of the renunciant and the Mahayana Bodhisattva precepts. There have been famous householder practitioners of Chan, such as P'ang-yun and his family, But even though such persons' experience might have been deep, few had much impact as teachers of Chan. Because they were laymen, major communities of practitioners did not develop around them and their sphere of influence tended to be limited.
We also have examples of Chan masters who deliberately broke the Buddhist precepts. The most celebrated examples of this sort - such as Nan-chuan's killing of the cat and Tan-hsia's burning of a statue of the Buddha to keep warm - are all isolated incidents, not regular occurrences. What is more, when one examines these events carefully, one finds that the actions of these masters were primarily didactic - intended to make a point to their students rather than to fulfil a personal whim. All in all, there are very few examples of influential Chan masters who made a regular practice of going against the precepts, and fewer still who advocated that their students engage in such behaviour.
To have received either the precepts of a novice or full renunciant has always been a minimum requirement for residence in a Sangha or practice hall of a Chan community. Thus, in most Chinese Chan temples the traditional Buddhist monastic precepts were strictly enforced. As Chan grew in popularity during the T'ang and Sung periods of Chinese history, eminent teachers such as Pai-chang Huai-hai developed additional codes for a comprehensive system of discipline and daily procedure better suited to the training of monks in large monastic centres. These rules, known as ch'ing-kuei, or "pure rules", supplemented but did not replace the original renunciatory precepts. In fact, moral restraint, strict community routine, collective worship, seated meditation, and regular discourses by and interviews with the Chan master are all essential features of the programme described in the pure rules.
What, then, are we to make of the assertion that "practice is no practice" or of the iconoclastic stories that we cited above? These teachings have real significance only for persons who have been immersed in the institutions of Chan training for a long time, or else persons of very unusual capacity. Indeed, the grinding of the tile had such a profound impact on Ma-tsu only because Ma-tsu had already dedicated so much time and effort to meditation. To any other person they might prove meaningless, if not downright misleading. For this reason, such stories - no matter how frivolous they may sound - must always be viewed within the solemn context of Chan training. To do otherwise is to seriously misrepresent Chan.
The beautiful lotus blossom grows from putrid muck, but it is the blossom itself that we prize, not the filth. That is to say, even though one may be forced by circumstance to defile the precepts, it is purity that one should continue to prize. Those who are unable to control themselves should keep the precepts and fix their gaze on positive spiritual qualities.
In the case of saints who have realised liberation, the precepts are indeed irrelevant, for their minds are pure and are no longer afflicted by the passions. Needless to say, this does not mean that they will wallow in the muck without restraint. Quite the contrary, purity and liberation remain the supreme goal, but it is the purification and liberation of others that becomes the focus now. Circumstances may warrant going against the precepts but purity and liberation will still be the main concern. The necessary course of action will be chosen out of clear deliberation and motivated out of compassion rather than personal desire.
The idea that there must be certain pre-conditions for the effective practice of Chan is really no different from the original Buddhist teaching of the three disciplines of moral restraint, samadhi, and wisdom. When the activity of body, speech, and mind is pure, the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are fully manifest. The genuine Three Jewels, in essence, are none other than the enlightened Buddha nature that is already inside you. They are fully manifest only when the three kinds of karma are purified. To purify the three activities of body, speech and mind, one must accord with the precepts and calm and clarify the mind through disciplined cultivation of meditation. Indeed, when the three deeds are pure, you, the Three Jewels, everything, are a single totality. If any one of the three deeds is impure the world will appear defiled, Buddha will have long ago entered nirvana, the Dharma will be empty words and paper, and the Sangha will be nowhere to be seen. Thus, when the basic conditions of the three disciplines have been properly met and one's practice has matured, the import of the Chan aphorism that "practice is no practice" and the examples of Nan-yueh and Lin-chi will then come fully to life.