Recently we touched on Buddhism in general and on Tibetan Buddhism in particular. Now it would be good to focus a bit on Zen Buddhism. We won’t waste any time on the numerous problems Zen has in modern Japan and in its American version. The story is too long, too complicated, and too depressing—I have already mentioned that in other postings. Suffice it to say the problems are big and numerous. Nor am I going to try to relateZen to Christianity. Much ink has been spilled on this topic in recent decades, both in Japan and in the U.S. and even in Europe. Some of it is interesting and deserves further exploration; some of it is best left alone.
At first glance Zen looks like the easiest form of Buddhism to approach for a Westerner, but in actuality it may very well be the most difficult. It appears so different from the complex elaborations and practices of Tibetan Buddhism! But even within Zen there are such serious differences between the Soto School and the Rinzai(the Southern School in China) that a member of one school can doubt the validity of the other. A person can get truly confused! What is the essence of Buddhism? What is Zen all about?
Zen appears to shun philosophical elaborations, metaphysical speculations, and systematic thought. However, a ton has been written about Zen in many languages and in different ages. So here too one has to tread carefully—some of this stuff is very insightful and helpful; some of it is misleading, missing the point of Zen, or just plain excess baggage on a difficult journey. Aristotle said that to truly understand something you need to thoroughly examine it at its origin. So consider the following account:
Sakyamuni Buddha was once lecturing to a large group, so the story goes, gathered on Lin-shan (Spirit Mountain). After his lecture he picked up a flower and held it before his audience without speaking a word. Quite mystified the whole group remained silent, pondering as to what the Buddha wished to convey by this gesture. Only the monk Kasyapa broke into an understanding smile. The Buddha was pleased…..
Such is the account of the beginning of Zen, and whether this is mythic or historical does not matter. As John Wu put it, “It is fitting that Zen should have begun with a flower and a smile.” In India Buddhism developed a complex and elaborate spiritual culture. When this whole thing traveled into Tibet, the Tibetans absorbed it totally even enhanced it and transformed it into their own kind of Buddhism. However, when this complex traveled into China something different happened. Both the Chinese character and the inner dynamic of Taoism pared this whole complex down to “a direct pointing at the Mind.” All that was left was a great Silence, the hermit way of life(usually), and an enigmatic and intense focus and vision that one had to uncover for oneself. It was brusque and to the point—every practice was held suspect as an evasion, even meditation even as it was of course practiced (and much later became the key signature of Zen). Consider the following from Nan Yueh(about 700), who succeeded the greatHui Neng in the transmission of the teachings of the Southern School, the forerunner of Rinzai:
“Do you want to be master of zazen, or do you intend to attainBuddhahood! If your intention is to study Zen itself, you must know that Zen does not consist in sitting or lying. Do you want to attain Buddhahood by the cross-legged sitting posture? But the Buddha has no specific form…. Trying to attain Buddhahood by merely sitting cross-legged in meditation is nothing other than murdering the Buddha. As long as you remain attached to such a sitting posture you will never be able to reach the Mind.”
Centuries later Dogen, a great Japanese Zen master, saw things a bit differently and opened the door to a new way—he is considered the real founder of Soto Zen:
“Zazen consists solely in sitting in tranquility. It is not a means by which to seek something. Sitting itself is enlightenment. If, as ordinary people think, practice were different from enlightenment, the two would become conscious of one another (i.e., one would become conscious of enlightenment while engaged in zazen, and one would remain conscious of the process of self-discipline afterone has attained the state of enlightenment). Such an enlightenment contaminated by this kind of consciousness is not a genuine enlightenment.”
Dogen saw in the practice of sitting in meditation the very actualization of the Buddha-nature itself, that is, the intrinsically undifferentiated oneness of Being itself. For Dogen zazen is not an artificially devised technique for achieving enlightenment. In fact the highest principle of Zen established by Dogen is that enlightenment and practice are exactly one and the same thing. A person is enlightened by sitting in meditation whether he be aware of it or not. (From Toshihiko Izutsu)
Whichever way you go the goal is always the same: enlightenment, seeing into one’s Mind, one’s original Nature, the No-self, the True Man of No Rank, etc., etc. Lots of different terms for the same reality, which is a radically new kind of awareness. As Zen sees it (and Buddhism as a whole), the ego self is a constricted box with a seeming inside and outside. The phenomenal ego self, your ordinary rational consciousness, bifurcates the world into self and the other, into “me” and “you,” into subject and object. Our ordinary rational consciousness is always a “consciousness-of” something. Whatever we turn to and become aware of, that becomes an “object” to our “I.” This works quite well in building civilization and developing science, etc. However, this leaves us alienated from our own deep self, the real person that we are—perhaps this is the real meaning of what Christianity calls “The Fall.” The moment we turn our rational consciousness toward our self we turn it into an object, and that simply puts it “out there.” It recedes from our grasp continually as long as it an object to my rational consciousness. Your real self, your true personhood is not, can not be an object, so to your rational consciousness it will seem like it is not there, thus the term, No-self. As Toshihiko Izutsuexplains it, reasoning or thinking in whatever form it may appear, always involves the “I” becoming conscious of something….consciousness-of. The thinking ego and the object of thinking are separated from one another; they stand against one another. This consciousness-of is dualism. But what Zen is concerned with above everything else is the actualization of consciousness pure and simple, not consciousness-of. Though similar in verbal form, consciousness-pure-and-simple and consciousness-of are worlds apart. For the former is absolute metaphysical Awareness without the thinking subject and without the object thought of. It is not our awareness of the external world. Rather, it is the whole world of Being becoming aware of itself in us and through us. And it is to this metaphysical Awareness of Being that Bodhidharma refers with the word Mind or Self-nature and Rinzai with his peculiar expression—the True Man of No Rank.
Incidentally, in religion, especially in Christianity, we do the same with that Reality we call God. It inevitably becomes an object over against my “I.” As long as this Reality is the goal of this rational consciousness, it will always be trapped in an irreducible dualism. So Zen is a way into a “wholly other” awareness in religion also and given the right conditions it could liberate the Christian mind from its own constricted box.
When the walls of this ego-self, this constricted box, are knocked down, a new kind of awareness emerges. In Rinzai Zen (the Southern School in China) the walls of this box are kicked down(the rational mind is totally turned upside down by the koanmethod and by a peculiarly intense interaction with a master); in Soto Zen, as it developed from Dogen in Japan, the walls kind of dissolve as you sit in meditation, keeping the rational mind empty. When this happens our self-understanding is transformed radically, but it is an experience akin to “death,” so radical it is and such an upheaval in awareness. An awakening that requires a kind of death of the ego is familiar to those aware of Christianmysticism.
Let me quote from Toshihiko Izutsu concerning the nature of the problem:
“Suppose someone asks me ‘Who are you?’ or ‘What are you?’ To this question I can give an almost infinite number of answers. I can say, for example, ‘I am Japanese,’ I am a student,’ etc. Or I can say ‘I am so-and–so,’ giving my name. None of these answers, however, presents the whole of myself in its absolute ‘suchness.’ And no matter how many times I may repeat the formula ‘I am X,’ changing each time the semantic referent of the X, I shall never be able to present directly and immediately the ‘whole human being’ that I am. All that is presented by this formula is nothing but a partial and relative aspect of my existence, an objectified qualification of the ‘whole human being.’ Instead of presenting the pure subjectivity that I am as a ‘whole human being,’ the formula presents myself only as a relative object. But what Zen is exclusively concerned with is precisely the ‘whole human being.’ And herewith begins the real Zen problem concerning the ego consciousness. Zen may be said to take its start by putting a huge question mark to the word ‘I’ as it appears as the subject-term of all sentences of the type, ‘I am X’ or ‘I do X.’ Oneenters into the world of Zen only when one realizes that his own I has turned into an existential question mark. . . . In the authentic tradition of Zen Buddhism in China it was customary for a master to ask a newcomer to his monastery questions in order to probe the spiritual depth of the person. The standard question, the most commonly used for this purpose, was: ‘Who are you?’ This simple, innocent-looking question was in reality one which the Zen disciples were most afraid of. . . . the question is of such grave importance because it demands of us that we reveal immediately and on the spot the reality of the I underlying the common usage of the first person pronoun, that is, the ‘whole man’ in its absolute subjectivity.”
And of course a fake answer or an imitation of some enlightened master will not work. Muso, a Japanese master of the 14th century had this to say: “To me many men of inferior capacity come and ask various questions about the spirit of Buddhism. To these people I usually put the question: ‘Who is the one who is actually asking me such a question about the spirit of Buddhism?’ To this there are some who answer: ‘I am so-and-so,’ or ‘I am such-and-such.’ There are some who answer: ‘Why is it necessary at all to ask such a question? It is too obvious.’ There are some who answer not by words but by gestures meant to symbolize the famous dictum: ‘My own Mind, that is the Buddha.’ There are others who answer by repeating or imitating like a parrot the sayings of ancient masters…. All these people will never be able to attain enlightenment.”
Now consider another way of representing the dynamic of Zen. Imagine a circle. The circle has a center point. The circle also has a circumference, a boundary line. If the radius is large, the circle will be seen as large; if the radius is small, the circle shrinks to a small size. In either case there is a boundary and an “inside” and an “outside.” Ok, this is obviously an image of the self as we experience it in our phenomenal everyday existence. Some people have a very constricted sense of self—their own well-being is all that matters. Others have a very expansive sense of self—their sense of empathy may be enormous (“I feel your pain”—sorry, I couldn’t resist that fake political platitude). But Zen is NOT in that—no matter how expansive that circle gets. Zen is about the “erasure” of that circumference altogether. I choose the word “erasure” because that boundary line of selfhood is realized as totally insubstantial, a kind of unreality—but it does seem like a “solid wall” to us. Awakening, englightenment, satori, whatever you want to call it, is the realization that your personhood is this mysterious center of awareness with no boundary. It is pure awareness that includes all—there is no more duality.
Now just a few words about some misconceptions—especially perpetrated by Westerners who tend to be critics of Buddhism, usually from a Christian perspective.
1.Zen (and Buddhism) is thoroughly negative in its grasp of human life. FALSE.
2.Zen denies the value of the person, the individual, the self. ABSOLUTELY FALSE.
3.Zen calls for a suppression of feelings and emotions, a numbing of consciousness. HORRENDOUSLY FALSE.
4.Zen makes one passive and insensitive. FALSE beyond belief.
5.It is impossible for a Christian to go deep into Zen. Utterly FALSE, but I will go into this in another posting.
But one of the most important misconceptions about Zen (and Buddhism) is one that afflicts both the critics of Zen and some of its adherents: that this new state of awareness yields a wholly different “I” from my previous “I.” You will probably say, “Just wait a minute! You just said all this stuff about radical transformation and now you’re saying it’s going to be the same old me!” Let me explain. There’s that famous saying in Zen: Before enlightenment mountains are only mountains….duringenlightenment mountains are no longer mountains….after enlightenment mountains are mountains. So your everyday “I” is still there, not replaced by some magical, second “I,” not replaced by a new persona, etc. As the Zen people put it, when you are hungry you eat, then you wash your bowl, and when you are tired you sleep, and so on. This is Zen. The incredible thing is that this radical awareness is right there in the ground of our everyday life, not somewhere else, not produced by some magical/spiritual trick, etc. Enlightenment is always there right at our fingertips, right in front of our nose. It is the treasure buried in the field of our ordinary self. Thus Zen makes shortshrift of “visions,” “ecstasies,” paranormal phenomena, etc. Recall the ultimate Buddhist equation: samsara=nirvana. It is within our ordinary everyday experience that we discover this radical awareness.
Let us conclude with a few important Zen stories. These stories are mostly from the Southern School (Rinzai Zen) where the intensity of the master-disciple encounter is paramount, rather than meditation. They reveal the essence of Zen in an indescribable way!
Master Pai Chang brought out a water-bottle, put it on the floor, and asked a question: “If you are not to call it a water-bottle, what would you call it?” The head monk of the monastery answered by saying: “It cannot possibly be called a piece of wood!”
Thereupon the Master turned to Wei Shan (who took care of the food supply of the monks—a lowly position) and asked him to give his answer.
On the spot, Wei Shan tipped over the water-bottle with his foot. The Master laughed and remarked: “The head monk has been beaten by this monk.”
(Comment: When you affirm or negate, you are still in the world of dualism and objectification.)
A monk once went to Gensha and wanted to learn where the entrance to the path of truth was. Gensha asked him , “Do you hear the murmuring of the brook?” “Yes, I hear it,” answered the monk. “There is the entrance,” instructed the master.
When a monk asked Hui-Neng(perhaps the greatest of the great Zen Masters—in the remarkable Tang period in China) for instruction, he answered, “Show me your original face before you were born.”…. Hui-Neng said: “Think not of good, think not of evil, but see what at the moment your original features are, which you had before coming into existence.”
(Comment: Zen is the awareness of the Nothingness out of which your own self and all else emerges and dissolves into moment by moment. What is left is this beautiful luminous awareness….butthis is saying too much already!)
“I come here to seek the truth of Buddhism,” a young disciple asked a master. “Why do you seek such a thing here?” answered the master. “Why do you wander about neglecting your own precious treasure at home? I have nothing to give you, and what truth of Buddhism do you desire to find in my monastery? There is nothing, absolutely nothing.”
LiK’u, a high government official of the Tang period, asked Nan-chuan: “A long time ago a man kept a goose in a bottle. It grew larger and larger until it could not get out of the bottle any more; he did not want to break the bottle, nor did he wish to hurt the goose: how would you get it out?” The master called out, “O Officer!”—to which LiK’u at once responded, “Yes!” “There, it is out!”
Tokusan was a great scholar of the Diamond Sutra. Learning that there was such a thing as Zen, ignoring all the written scriptures and directly laying hands on one’s inner self, he went to Ryutan to be instructed in the teaching. One day Tokusan was sitting outside trying to look into the mystery of Zen. Ryutan said, “Why don’t you come in?” Replied Tokusan, “It is pitch dark.” A candle was lighted and held out to Tokusan. When he was at the point of taking it, Ryutan suddenly blew out the light, whereupon the mind of Tokusan was opened.
Pai-chang went out one day attending his master Ma-tsu, when they saw a flock of wild geese flying. Ma-tsu asked: “What are they?” “They are wild geese, sir.” “Where are they flying?” “They have flown away.” Ma-tsu abruptly taking hold of Pai-chang’s nose gave it a twist. Overcome with pain, Pai-chang cried out, “Oh! Oh!” Said Ma-tsu: “You say they have flown away, but all the same they have been here from the very start.”
When Chu-hung of the Ming dynasty was writing a book on the ten laudable deeds of a monk, one of those self-assertive fellows came to him, saying: “What is the use of writing such a book when in Zen there is not even the atom of a thing to be called laudable or not-laudable?” Chu-hung answered, “The five aggregates are entangling, and the four elements grow rampant, and how can you say there are no evils?” The monk still insisted, “The four elements are ultimately all empty and the five aggregates have no reality whatever.” Chu-hung, giving him a slap in the face, said, “So many are mere learned ones, you are not the real thing yet; give me another answer.” But the monk made no answer and started to go away filled with angry feelings. “There,” said the master smilingly, “why don’t you wipe the dirt off your own face?”
(Comment: This angry monk reminds me of many modern practitioners of Zen who are quick to talk “Zen talk,” but are not quite able to “walk the walk”!)
This very important anecdote is related by Toshihiko Izutsu:
“The hero of the story is Chu Chih, a famous Zen master of the ninth century. This master, whenever and whatever he was asked about Zen, used to stick up one finger. Raising one finger without saying anything was his invariable answer to any question whatsoever he was asked concerning Zen. ‘What is the supreme and absolute Truth?’—answer: the silent raising of one finger. ‘What is the essence of Buddhism?’—answer: again the selfsame silent raising of one finger. Now Master Chu Chih had a young disciple, a boy apprentice, who followed the Master, serving him at home and out of doors. Having observed his Master’s pattern of behavior this boy himself began to raise one finger whenever people asked him questions about Zen in the absence of the Master. At first, the Master did not notice it, and everything went well for some time. But the fatal moment came at at last. The Master came to hear about what the boy had been doing behind his back. One day, the Master hid a knife in the sleeve, summoned the boy to his presence, and said, ‘I hear that you have understood the essence of Buddhism. Is it true?’ The boy replied ‘Yes, it is.’ Thereupon the Master asked, ‘What is the Buddha?’ The boy in answer stuck up one finger. Master Chu Chih suddenly took hold of the boy and cut off with the knife the finger which the boy had just raised. As the boy was running out of the room screaming with pain, the Master called to him. The boy turned round. At that very moment, quick as lightning came the Master’s question: ‘What is the Buddha?’ Almost by conditioned reflex, the boy held up his hand to raise his finger. There was no finger there. The boy on the spot attained enlightenment.”
(Comment: Suffice it to say there is too much packed into this story for a short comment!)
And in conclusion:
A monk once asked Master Chao Chou: “Who is Chao Chou?” Chao Chou replied: “East Gate, West Gate, South Gate, North Gate!”
Toshihiko Izutsu: “Chao Chou is completely open. All the gates of the City are open, and nothing is concealed. Chao Chou stands right in the middle of the City, i.e., the middle of the Universe. One can come to see him from any and every direction. The Gates that have been artificially established to separate the ‘interior’ from the ‘exterior’ are now wide-open. There is no ‘interior.’ There is no ‘exterior.’ There is just Chao Chou, and he is all-transparent.”
(Comment: Sounds like one of the great Desert Fathrers, and a marvelous description of a person who has God-realization.)