Monthly Archives: August 2016

A Potpourri

We will have a respite from my historical journey through Zen Buddhism this time—just a few odd pieces that have come to my attention.


There are two “happy” documents to come out from the recent gathering of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (to be distinguished from the more conservative Missouri Synod). There’s probably a lot more good stuff going on there, but it’s these two that caught my attention. First of all there was a “declaration of unity” with the Roman Catholic Church. It admits that there still are some real issues that need addressing but a “basic unity” is there and is more a process that we all are involved in. (By the way, Pope Francis is going to Lund, Sweden in October to participate in a celebration of the Protestant Reformation.) I always thought a lot of the Protestant-Catholic disputes were just so much verbiage due to ill feelings on both sides, gross misunderstandings in all the words we “shouted” at each other, and definitely some decadence and arrogance on the Catholic side. When we calmly look at what we hold and believe in, then the differences do not go away but do seem to shrink.

The other Lutheran document was a simple one declaring the church’s support of the Palestinian people and condemning the Israeli practice of “apartheid” and the grabbing of their land. It is a courageous stand considering the powerful Israeli lobby in this country, but it is also in keeping with the sentiments of quite a few other religious groups. I am happy for all my Lutheran friends, but I do wish their church would get a bit more “mystical”!! (Not that mine is much better!)


Recently I again came across a well-known quote by Merton but one whose full ramifications are hardly explored. Here is the quote: “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves.” The fact is that we are trying to cross that abyss in all we do, try to do, in all our efforts and actions. This universal condition is explained in Catholic theology in terms of what is called “original sin.” But theology never gets to the nitty-gritty of what this really means in everyday life except in abstract words like “sin,” “greed,” “lust,” etc. And it readily loses the fact that religion itself shares in this problem. In other words religion itself can easily be part of the problem and not just part of the solution.

Now Buddhism, for one, has a more existential word: “suffering”–that which is that deep dissatisfaction in pursuit of this self that we feel is “graspable” in or through some experience out there; something that frees us from that spiritual vertigo of that abyss as deluded we imagine ourselves having crossed it. Modern life is so good at that. Visualize those racing greyhounds chasing a virtual rabbit, round and round they go, and never do they catch it. Such is a good picture of what is going on in all seeking of power and wealth and status and name and adulation and fame and possessions and yes of course the continual play of sex; you see this pursuit in endless shopping of something “ever new,” some gimmick to give a temporary relief from the anxiety of sensing that abyss within ourselves, of sensing that we are not really “ourselves” but some image. Here we can also find religion as this kind of “gimmick”–an infantile religion that keeps us in an infantile place.

Zen is really good at addressing this problem; and here I don’t mean just Zen Buddhism, but the heart of it all which is really Zen and which is at the heart of all true mysticism (this last statement I admit can be argued). All those good old Zen masters in China and Japan, all their words and gestures, everything they did and were, all this simply pointed at the “overcoming” of that abyss, at the full realization of selfhood, at the resolution of what seems like an unbridgeable duality. Now as I said all authentic religious mysticism deals with this also, but it’s not just religion that’s seeking an answer here. In the 1950s it became apparent that psychoanalysis was a secular version of an indepth analysis that dealt with this problem. At least this seemed the case with some great figures like Erich Fromm, who not only was open to religious language but also engaged in dialogue with Zen and religion through figures like D.T. Suzuki and Thomas Merton.


In 1957 Erich Fromm organized a conference around the topic of Zen and psychoanalysis. A number of practitioners came, such as Richard De Martino who was a psychoanalyst and a student of Zen and whom I found very illuminating, and of course D. T. Suzuki. Here is a summary of some things that Fromm had to say:

“At the beginning of the century, people coming to psycho­analysis were mainly those suffering from symptoms (i.e. paralyzed limbs, obsessional thoughts and actions). Now the majority of patients are those suffering from an “inner deadness”; they are generally unhappy with their lives wherein success has lost its satisfaction. This inner deadness manifests in the individual as an alienation from self, others and nature. Life poses the question – “how can we overcome the suffering, the imprisonment, the shame which the experience of separateness creates; how can we find union within ourselves, with our fellow man, with nature?” One is driven to solve this Koan – even in insanity an answer is given by striking out the reality outside of ourselves, living completely within the shell of ourselves and thus overcoming the fright of separateness, or alienation. The answers are only two: to find unity through regression to the pre-awareness state; or to be fully born, to develop one’s awareness, one’s reason, one’s capacity to live, to such a point that one transcends one’s own egocentric involvement, and arrives at a new harmony or oneness with the world. ….   Well-being is possible only to the degree to which one has overcome one’s narcissism, and is open, responsive, sensitive, awake, empty (in the Zen sense), fully related to others and to nature affectively; to become what one potentially is; to have the full capacity for joy and for sadness; to be creative (of seeing the world as it is and experiencing it as my world, the world created and transformed by my creative grasp of it – so that the world ceases to be a strange world ‘over there’ and becomes MY world; to drop one’s Ego, to give up greed, to be and to experience oneself in the act of being, not in having, preserving, coveting, using.   Most of what is in our consciousness is “false consciousness” and it is essentially society that fills us with these fictitious and unreal notions. This ‘social filter’ permits certain experiences to be filtered through to our awareness, while others are stopped and held in the unconscious, e.g. not allowing the awareness of a subtle or complex experience (seeing a rosebud in the early morning, a drop of dew on it, while the air is still chilly, the sun coming up, a bird singing)   because the social filter does not consider such a multi-sense experience as sufficiently ‘important’ or ‘eventful’ to be recognized.

Again, certain cultures do not form words or vocabulary to recognize perspectives of reality not seen as priority distinctions. Different cultures have varied logic processes, and the logic of a reality can only be perceived through one’s cultural social filter. The filter of one’s culture may not allow one to be aware of certain attitudes or inclinations taboo to the group. The reason behind the social filter is that any society, in order to survive, must mold the character of its members in such a way that they want to do what they have to do; their social function must become internalized and transformed into something they feel driven to do, rather than something they are obliged to do. Were the society to lose its coherence and firmness, many individuals would cease to act the way they are expected to, and society itself would be endangered. In all societies there are taboos, the violation of which results in ostracism. The individual, cravenly fearful of ostracism, cannot permit himself to be aware of thoughts or feelings inconsistent with his culture, and learns to repress them.

Consciousness represents ‘social’ man, the accidental limitations set by the historical situation into which an individual is thrown. Unconsciousness represents universal man, the whole man, rooted in the Cosmos; it represents the plant in man, the animal in him, the spirit in him; it represents his past down to the dawn of human existence, and it represents his future to the day when man will have become fully human, and when nature will be humanized as man will be naturized. By repressing reality through the distorting cultural social filter, we “see as through a glass darkly (I Corinthians 13:11). Again, via cerebration we see the experiences as being, if not distorted, unreal – e.g. I believe I see – but I only see words; I believe I feel, but I only think feelings. The cerebrated person is the alienated person, the person in the cave (Plato) who sees only shadows and mistakes them for immediate reality. This cerebrated alienation arises through the ambiguity of language. In using words, people think they are transmitting the full experience. The receiver thinks he sees the transmitted message, inasmuch as he employs his own personal meaning of the words – he thinks he feels it – yet for him, the receiver, there is no personal experience except that of his own memory and thought. When he thinks he grasps reality, it is only his brain-self that grasps it, while he, the whole man (eyes, hands, heart, belly) grasps nothing – in fact, he is not participating in the experience which he believes is his.”

(The extended quote above is from notes on the conference that I found on the internet. I believe these are summaries of Fromm’s talk.)


And here is a direct quote from Fromm during this conference:

““Well-being is the state of having arrived at the full development of reason: reason not in the sense of a merely intellectual judgment, but in that of grasping truth by “letting things be” (to use Heidegger’s term) as they are. Well-being is possible only to the degree to which one has overcome one’s narcissism; to the degree to which one is open, responsive, sensitive, awake, empty (in the Zen sense). Well-being means to be fully related to man and nature affectively, to overcome separateness and alienation, to arrive at the experience of oneness with all that exists—and yet to experience myself at the same time as the separate entity I am, as the individual. Well-being means to be fully born, to become what one potentially is; it means to have the full capacity for joy and for sadness or, to put it still differently, to awake from the half-slumber the average man lives in, and to be fully awake. If it is all that, it means also to be creative; that is, to react and to respond to myself, to others, to everything that exists—to react and to respond as the real, total man I am to the reality of everybody and everything as he or it is. In this act of true response lies the area of creativity, of seeing the world as it is and experiencing it as my world, the world created and transformed by my creative grasp of it, so that the world ceases to be a strange world “over there” and becomes my world. Well-being means, finally, to drop one’s Ego, to give up greed, to cease chasing after the preservation and the aggrandizement of the Ego, to be and to experience one’s self in the act of being, not in having, preserving, coveting, using.”


Now psychotherapy has had a lot of criticism and many key critics and much of this is well-deserved, but in the hands of a specially gifted practitioner like Erich Fromm it becomes an acute tool to diagnose what ails us, not in theological language but in existential terms. Thomas Merton himself benefited from his encounter with Fromm and his kind of psychotherapy. Then there was also Merton’s famous exchange with the Iranian Sufi who was a psychotherapist, Reza Aratesh. Merton wrote a whole essay about his work, and that can be found in the collection Contemplation in a World of Action.


Recently I came upon this Zen story that pertains to one of the lesser-known Zen masters of China, Lung-t’an.

“A nun asked Lung-t’an as to what she should do in order to become a monk in the next life. The master asked, ‘How long have you been a nun?’ The nun said, ‘My question is whether there will be any day when I shall be a monk.’ ‘What are you now?’ asked the master. To this the nun answered, ‘In the present life I am a nun. How can anyone fail to know this?’ Lung-t’an fired back: ‘Who knows you?’”

A truly remarkable encounter! The nun boldly addresses her condition on a social/historical level, and the zen master takes to a wholly different level. You can hear the complaint in her voice about the inherent unfairness of her status as a woman–nuns are rated inferior to monks. She is quite right as far as that goes, and this is the historical predicament of all women in all the religious traditions. But she is a kind of proto-feminist and she raises her voice with this master. No passive “little flower” here! But the Zen master takes her to a completely other level of identity. She brings her problem, her pain, her anxiety, her disenchantment, her impatience, her sense of justice; and Zen simply uses all that for leverage to open up a whole new vista of who she is. Zen does NOT solve our “problems”; it uses them to open us up to an awakening to whom we really are. And from this will spring the needed creativity and resources that will allow us to deal with our problem.

(Recall St. Paul’s: There is no more male or female, no slave or free, no rich or poor, no Jew or Gentile….all these identity markers which were so important in Paul’s world are now radically relativized–slavery is NOT by the way justified as some folk seem to think by this kind of language–and a whole new identity reality is pointed at which Paul equates with “Christ.” That is the primary reality, and once you awake to that, then you can deal with all these other problems and divisions according to your new sense of identity.)


And to conclude I just want to share this image: a drawing by Japanese Zen Master Hakuin, 18th Century. The title of this drawing is “Blind Men Crossing a Bridge.” An apt portrayal of the spiritual journey!!













The Masters, Part II

We continue our reflection. First, a historical note: Buddhism in China in the early centuries was basically divided up into Southern Buddhism and Northern Buddhism. The South was mostly populated by Hui-neng’s brand of Zen Buddhism, which upon his death proliferated into 5 schools, led by some of his key disciples. It was mostly rural, self-sustaining to a large extent, and based on a brisk and brusque Zen that bordered on the iconoclastic. The North was very different. The Buddhism there, even when it was termed “Zen,” was very drawn to study, to asceticism, to piety and mythology. It was a Buddhism situated mostly in the large cities and for the elite and wealthy. In fact it depended on wealthy donors for support, carrying Buddhist begging to an absurd degree, becoming wealthy themselves, and so becoming an inviting target for powerful figures.

Now various Chinese Emperors occasionally persecuted Buddhism–on the pretext that it was a “foreign religion” unlike Taoism and Confucianism. After Hui-neng’s death there was one huge persecution that devastated the Buddhist presence in China. Hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns were forced to return to lay life; thousands of temples and monasteries were destroyed. The North was totally wiped out and never recovered. In the South, Hui-neng’s Zen survived because of hearty disciples like Lin Chi and because of its social structure and geographical location: rural, even in remote areas, away from cities, and not depending on wealthy donors at all.


There is a vigor, a resilience, a depth, a toughness in the Zen that survives, and a lot of this is due to the main figure of this period in Chinese Chan (the 9th century): Lin Chi. He was a disciple of a disciple of a disciple of Hui-neng. A lot of what is authentic Zen which survives in China today comes from Lin Chi; but most important and most interesting is when his line moves to Japan and becomes what is known as Rinzai Zen(Rinzai being the Japanese for Lin Chi). This becomes the quintessential koan school.

So Lin Chi is another of these truly remarkable figures. On the surface of things he is not an attractive figure: scowling, shouting, hitting people with a stick, not one to care for your feelings!! Here is an ancient and classic depiction of him, at work with a kind of hoe, like all Chinese Zen monks, and you get the picture in more ways than one:


But Burton Watson, the scholar and poet who translated a lot of his teachings, scratches beneath this surface: “Who is this Liin-chi, with his devilish face and fearfully glaring eyes, and what is he shouting about? Anyone who takes a serious interest in Zen Buddhist teachings will probably find himself asking that question at some point, for there is little chance of getting around Lin-chi if one hopes to get at Zen. His portrait, with those penetrating eyes, will confront you everywhere in the Zen world, and when your teachers have tired of haranguing you–‘Straighten your back!’–‘Dig into your koan!’–they are certain to open the book that bears his name and harangue you further with readings from his golden words. Why must we listen to these pronouncements of Lin-chi? Because his is the oldest and most authentic voice that has come down to us from the early tradition of Chinese Ch’an or Zen…. Lin-chi glares at us because he wants us to attend to his words, words that are of life-and-death significance. He shouts because he hopes to wake us to their meaning.”


Consider the following episodes:

One day Constant Attendant Wang called on the Master and together they went to look at the monks’ hall. Constant Attendant Wang said, “This hallful of monks, do they read sutras perhaps? The Master said, “No, they don’t read sutras.” “Do they perhaps learn how to meditate?” asked the Constant Attendant. “No, they don’t learn how to meditate,” said the Master. The Constant Attendant said, “If they don’t read sutras and they don’t learn how to meditate, what in fact do they do?” The Master said, “We’re training all of them to become buddhas and patriarchs.” The Constant Attendant said, “Gold dust may be precious, but if it gets in the eye it can blind. What about it?” The Master said, “And I always thought you were just an ordinary fellow!”

(Burton Watson translation)


The Master ascended the hall and said, “Here in this lump of red flesh there is a True Man with no title. Constantly he goes in and out the gates of your face. If there are any of you who don’t know this for a fact, then look! Look!”

At that time there was a monk who came forward and asked, “What is he like–the True Man with no title?”

The Master got down from his chair, seized hold of the monk and said, “Speak! Speak!”

The monk was about to say something, whereupon the Master let go of him, shoved him away, and said, “True Man with no title–what a shitty ass-wiper!”

The Master then returned to his quarters.

(Burton Watson translation)

The Master ascended the hall. A monk asked, “What is the basic meaning of Buddhism?”

The Master held up his fly whisk straight up.

The monk gave a shout.

The Master struck him.

Another monk asked, “What is the basic meaning of Buddhism?”

Again the Master held his fly whisk straight up.

The monk gave a shout.

The Master also gave a shout.

The monk was about to say something, whereupon the Master hit him.

(Burton Watson translation)


Unless you have an inkling of what Lin Chi and his fellow Zen masters have in mind, encounters like this will exasperate you with their opaqueness. Perhaps a look at how Lin Chi himself became a “master” might help a bit. Here is an extended account from John C. H. Wu’s book The Golden Age of Zen:

“From the standpoint of natural endowment, Lin-chi was a typical northerner. As a young Buddhist monk he was an earnest and plodding pilgrim in the way of perfection, with pietist inclinations…. He was already a fully ordained monk when he began to feel an attraction for Ch’an. Probably in his twenties he joined the community of the master Huang-po…. At that time Mu-chou Tao-ming was the leader of the community. He was impressed by the purity of Lin-chi’s character and conduct, and kept an eye on him for a long time. When he thought that the time had come, he approached Lin-chi, asking, ‘How long has Your Reverence been here?’ ‘Three years,’ replied Lin-chi. ‘Have you ever presented a question to the Abbot?’ ‘No. I have never done so, because I do not even know what to ask.’ ‘Why don’t you ask the Abbot to explain to you the essential principles of Buddhism?’ Following the suggestion, Lin-chi went to put the question before the Abbot. Hardly had he finished with his question when Huang-po struck him with his staff. When Lin-chi came back, Mu-chou asked him, ‘How did he answer the question?’ Lin-chi told him what had happened, adding that he really could not make heads or tails of the Abbot’s unaccountable action. Mu-chou again egged him on to repeat the question. Lin-chi did as before, and once again he was beaten. Mu-chou pressed him for the third time and, believing that he might have better luck, Lin-chi asked the question for the third time, but he was beaten for the third time. Thereupon Lin-chi made up his mind that he had had enough of this nonsense and that it was time for him to leave the place for good. Even then he did not lose either his temper or his manners. He confided his decision to Mu-chou, saying, ‘I appreciate your instigating and urging me to ask about the Buddha Dharma. Repeatedly the Abbot has deigned to bestow his beatings upon me. I only regret that, due to some obstructive karma of my own making, I have not been able to comprehend the profound doctrine. There’s nothing left for me to do but to leave.’ Mu-chou said, ‘Before you go away, it is proper that you should take leave of the Abbot.’ Lin-chi bowed and retired. In the meantime, Mu-chou lost no time in coming to the Abbot, whispering to him, ‘The monk who asked the questions, although he is still young, is an extraordinary man. When he comes to take leave, please receive him tactfully. In the future he is destined to be a towering tree, which will shed its salutary shadows upon mankind.’ When Lin-chi came to take leave of the Abbot, the latter said, ‘You need not go to other places. Just go to the river bank at Kao-an to consult Ta-yu [interjection: he was a hermit monk], and I am sure he will tell you everything.’

When Lin-chi came to Ta-yu, the latter asked where he had come from, to which he answered that he had come from Huang-po’s place. Ta-yu then asked, ‘What instructions have you received from Huang-po?’ Lin-chi replied, “Three times I inquired about the essentials of the Buddha Dharma and three times I was beaten. I don’t know whether or not I had committed any fault.’ Ta-yu said, ‘The fact is that Huang-po had treated you with the compassionate heart of a grandmother, bent upon releasing you once for all from bondage and distress. And yet you have come here to ask me whether you are not at fault!’ Lin-chi was thoroughly enlightened at these words. Then he said, ‘So, after all, there is not much to Huang-po’s Buddha Dharma!’ Ta-yu grasped him, saying, ‘You bed-wetting imp! Only a moment ago you were still asking whether you might not be at fault. And now you are so bold as to say that there is not much to Huang-po’s Buddha Dharma. What truth do you see? Tell me right away! Lin-chi did not speak, but punched Ta-yu below the ribs thrice. Ta-yu pushed him away, saying, ‘After all, your master is Huang-po, not me. Why should I be involved?’”


And so begins the career of one of the giants of Zen Buddhism in China and Japan! What’s important to recognize, first of all, is how time-conditioned and culturally conditioned the words and gestures and iconoclasm of these figures is. It fits them to a tea, but they would be the first ones to point out that copying them is NOT the way. Even later Chinese Chan and later Japanese Zen faltered by simply a kind of ritual copying of these masters and today we have this same problem. Their iconoclasm is especially important to nuance. You have to remember that this was a truly religious society with a totally religious outlook, saturated with religious gestures and symbolism. Thus, their words that pooh-pooh various aspects of Buddhism have to be seen as a kind of liberating mechanism from merely a social religiosity–you see that in some Christian contexts where national identity and Christian identity become one thing. Today we have quite a different context in the modern West where religious symbols and rituals are hardly visible or even comprehensible to most. Perhaps a different kind of “medicine” is needed. In any case, what is most important is to get a handle on what is the point of all this, exactly what is going on, etc. So we have to keep in mind Hui-neng’s “direct pointing at the mind”–the true Self, nondualism that encompasses all reality, and an awakening that is so total and so uncompromising that no words or ideas can contain it.


Here is Wu again: “The focal point of Lin-chi’s philosophic vision is the unconditioned True Man. He never wearied of stressing reliance on one’s self, but this self is not the temporary individual, subject to all the contingencies of life, but the true self who is never born and therefore does not die, who is beyond time and space, who is one with the Tao. So long as a man identifies himself with his temporary self alone, he remains a slave. Once he is awakened to the True Man within him, he arrives at his true selfhood and becomes free.”


In other words Lin Chi is constantly asking, Who am I? Who are you?   And he is not fooled by the maneuvers of the ego self in any manner, religious, intellectual, or whatever….


Here is Lin-chi in his own words: “Followers of the Tao, do not take the Buddha for the Ultimate…. As I look at him, he is still like the hole in the privy. As to the Bodhisattvas and Arhats, they are all cangues and chains to keep you in bondage…. Virtuous Ones! Do not deceive yourselves! I care nothing for your expertise in interpreting the sutras and shastras, or for your high positions in the world, or for your flowing eloquence, or for your intelligence and wisdom; I only care for your true and authentic insight and genuine perception. Followers of Tao! Even if you were able to expound a hundred sutras and shastras, you would still be no match for a simple and humble monk with no concern for anything.”


You see how this is very much in keeping with Hui-neng’s lineage and teaching and approach to Zen. This is a very different kind of Buddhism. The focus is extremely intense on one’s own self and lived life–nothing exotic, no gimmicks, no “acting spiritual,” no reliance on scripture or ritual or even “masters.” Most of the recorded sayings of Lin-chi have to do with “cleaning the slate”–meaning he aims at the things that trip us up in our journey toward awakening. We spend most of our life and most of our energies in “reaching” for something “out there” beyond us, beyond our life. “Just give me that right situation and I will…..etc.” We will conclude with some words from Lin-chi as translated by Burton Watson:


“Followers of the Way, what is important is to approach things with a true and proper understanding. Walk wherever you please in the world but don’t let yourselves be muddled or misled by that bunch of goblin spirits. The man of value is the one who has nothing to do. [Taoism] Don’t try to do something special, just act ordinary. You look outside yourselves, going off on side roads hunting for something, trying to get your hands on something. That’s a mistake. You keep trying to look for the Buddha, but Buddha is just a name, a word.”


“Those who study the Way these days need to have faith in themselves and not go looking for something outside. Otherwise they get caught up in foolish and trifling environments and can’t even tell crooked from straight. There are patriarchs and there are buddhas, but those are all just things found in the scriptural teachings. Someone comes along with a phrase he has picked up, brings it out in a manner that’s half clear, half murky, and at once you start having doubts, looking at the sky, looking at the ground, running off to ask somebody else, getting into a great flurry. If you want to be first-rate fellows, don’t go around talking about the ruler or the rebels, talking about right and wrong, talking about sex and money matters, spending all your days talking idle chatter!   Here at my place we don’t talk about who is a monk and who is a lay believer. When someone comes to me, I can tell exactly what he is like.”


“Followers of the Way, the Dharma of the buddhas calls for no special undertakings. Just act ordinary, without trying to do anything particular. Move your bowels, piss, get dressed, eat your rice, and if you get tired, then lie down. Fools may laugh at me, but wise men will know what I mean.”


“You go all over the place, saying, ‘There’s religious practice, there’s enlightenment.’ Make no mistake! If there were such a thing as religious practice, it would all be just karma keeping you in the realm of birth and death. You say, ‘I observe all the six rules, and the ten thousand practices.’ In my view all that sort of thing is just creating karma. Seeking Buddha, seeking the Dharma–that’s just creating karma that leads to hell. Seeking the bodhisattvas–that too is creating karma. Studying sutras, studying doctrine–that too is creating karma…. There are a bunch of blind baldheads [monks] who, having stuffed themselves with rice, sit doing Ch’an-style meditation practice, trying to arrest the flow of thoughts and stop them from arising, hating clamor, demanding silence–but these aren’t Buddhist ways! The Patriarch Shen-hui said: ‘If you try to arrest the mind and stare at silence, summon the mind and focus it on externals, control the mind and make it clear within, concentrate the mind and enter into meditation, all practices of this sort create karma.’ … Followers of the Way, you take the words that come out of a bunch of old teachers to be a description of the true Way. You think, ‘This is a most wonderful teacher and friend. I have only the mind of a common mortal, I would never dare try to fathom such venerableness.’ Blind idiots! You go through life with this kind of understanding, betraying your own two eyes, cringing and faltering like a donkey on an icy road…. Followers of the Way, the really good friend is someone who dares speak ill of the Buddha, speak ill of the patriarchs…throws away the Tripitaka…and in the midst of opposition and assent searches out the real person…. Followers of the Way, here and there you hear it said that there is a Way to be practiced, a Dharma to become enlightened to. Will you tell me then just what Dharma there is to become enlightened to, what Way there is to practice? In your present activities, what is it you lack, what is it that practice must mend? But those little greenhorn monks don’t understand this and immediately put faith in that bunch of wild fox spirits, letting them spout their ideas and tie people in knots…. Fellow believers, what are you looking for? This man of the Way who depends on nothing, here before my eyes now listening to the Dharma–his brightness shines clearly, he has never lacked anything.”

To be continued…….














The Masters, Part I

Recently I have been reflecting on Zen (Chan in China). I want to continue in this vein here and next time, and then another posting where I hope to discuss some of the problems and controversies afflicting Zen. Now I would just like to ponder the giants of early Chan in China and Zen in Japan. These folks are among the most interesting and most important figures in human religious history.


Let’s start with the greatest of them all, Hui-neng, a giant among giants, the Master of all masters, and the Sixth and final Patriarch of Chan. His emergence is an incredible story in itself. Coming from a poor family in the south of China(638) and almost illiterate, he enters one of the early Chan monasteries, and there he is only a poor lay brother, as what we would call him today, who did nothing more than pound rice for the monastery kitchen. At a certain point he had heard someone chanting the Diamond Sutra and immediately it clicked with him–he immediately understood its real meaning, what it was pointing to, and his inner illumination broke open on his awareness. I won’t go into the longer story except to say that the Fifth Patriarch of Chan, who was the head of this monastery, eventually discovered the depths of this humble monk and recognized his true potential. He had Hui-neng come to him by night so that no one else would know. As he told Hui-neng, the other monks, the Master’s top students and disciples, would have a hard time accepting Hui-neng as a master considering his lowly status. But the Fifth Patriarch conferred on him the symbols of the transmission and sent him out to cultivate and deepen his already profound grasp of Chan. Hui-neng lived in the wilderness for over a decade, at times with ruffians and hunters, gently trying to persuade them from killing animals. Talk about the “hidden life!” Somehow he also learned to read and write. Eventually, like Jesus, he began his “public life” in South China.

Here is an important story about Hui-neng with a commentary by Merton:

One day Hui-neng was asked a leading question by a disciple: “Who has inherited the spirit of the Fifth Patriarch?” (i.e. who is patriarch now?)

Hui-neng replied: “One who understands Buddhism.”

The monk pressed his point: “Have you then inherited it?”

Hui-neng said: “No.”

“Why not?” asked the monk.

“Because I do not understand Buddhism.”


Merton: “The story is meant precisely to illustrate the fact that Hui-neng had inherited the role of Patriarch, or the charism of teaching the purest Zen. He was qualified to transmit the enlightenment of the Buddha himself to disciples. If he had laid claim to an authoritative teaching that made this enlightenment understandable to those who did not possess it, then he would have been teaching something else, that is to say a doctrine about enlightenment. He would be disseminating the message of his own understanding of Zen, and in that case he would not be awakening others to Zen in themselves, but imposing the imprint of his own understanding and teaching. Zen does not tolerate this kind of thing, since this would be incompatible with the true purpose of Zen: awakening a deep ontological awareness, a wisdom-intuition (Prajna) in the ground of the being of the one awakened.”

Hui-neng’s Chan is very sharply focused, and at some future time became formulated in this famous gatha:

“Special transmission outside the Scriptures.

No setting up of words and letters.

Point directly at man’s mind.

See self-nature and attain Buddahood.”

Commentary on the first line by John C. H. Wu:

“By a ‘special transmission outside the scriptures,’ is meant that the Dharma or Reality and Truth can only be ‘transmitted’ from mind to mind, that the scriptures are only a means of evoking or rousing our true insights, that besides the scriptures there are other means which may serve as an occasion to awake us to Reality, that this waking is a strictly personal experience…. All external things are but a reflection of our ‘Original Face,’ and all external teachings are but an echo of the true music of our self-nature. Let no one identify himself with his mere reflection or echo ; it is only by seeing one’s self-nature that he becomes actually what he is in essence.”

Hui-neng is not “against” scriptures; after all he learned how to read and he quoted from many sutras when he was teaching. What he is against is the notion that “reading, studying, or praying the scriptures” will lead to enlightenment. This kind of thing was prevalent in the Buddhism of his time and in popular Buddhism today. Hui-neng’s Chan moves intensely in another direction, which pooh-poohs the repetition of Scriptural language. All words, all language, are, in Merton’s term, only an “alarm clock”–and whatever words the Zen master uses, scriptural, koans, talks, everyday situations, etc., are only there to wake us up. Hui-neng’s Zen is not about “messages” in words that you then try to understand. (What this does to Christianity is very interesting, but we will tackle that in another posting.) And this now leads us to the second line.


Commentary by John C. H. Wu:

“This phrase has often been rendered as ‘no dependence on words and letters’(pu li wen tze). The word ‘li’ means to set up as a pattern. The idea is that, just as we must not cling to the letter of the Scriptures, so we should not expect others to be enslaved by our own words. A typical instance of this is where after he had spoken of the ‘true void of the self-nature,’ Hui-neng immediately warned his audience against clinging to the word ‘void.’ ‘Learned friends,’ he said, ‘when you hear me speaking of the void, please do not cling to the void. It is of first importance not to cling to the void. If you sit in meditation with a vacant mind, you will fall into a spiritless apathy.’ In fact, the true void is the same as infinite Reality. ‘The self-nature of man is so great that all things and laws are contained in it.’”


So again, the problem is not so much with words and language in itself, but in our relationship to words and what we make of them. The goal of goals is not simply to clarify or “spiritualize” our language–I have seen people who take up Zen take up a whole new language–they start speaking a “spiritual jargon,” dress differently, even trying to “look spiritual,” and people entering Christian monasteries tend to do the same thing–it’s not until much later that we discover what our real goal is and all this other stuff is, most of the time, harmless playing at spirituality. And our real goal, in Hui-neng’s terms and in the Zen that comes from him, is the actualization of our real self-nature in all our activity. And Hui-neng’s Zen accomplishes that by: “Pointing directly at the mind of man.”

Now here it is important to recognize that the word “mind” in this context does not refer to our thoughts, our rational ongoing thinking and willing, etc.–our usual use of this word. No, “mind” here is that deep ground of all this so-called thinking and willing. It is that which we cannot turn into “object” for our thinking because it is the very ground and foundation of our thoughts, feelings, vision, etc. And it is this which is the key to our self-nature and our enlightenment. This “mind” is never and can never be the object of our thinking, our analysis, our willing, etc.; we can never “find it” this way. It is not graspable in language or concept; yet it is always there at our fingertips, so to speak, in everything we do, feel, think, see, say, etc. It is by awakening to this “mind” that we recognize the essential nonduality of Reality and our being.

It is not at all clear how Hui-neng did this “pointing directly at the mind.” Monks did read scriptures and did meditate, and for Hui-neng this was ok but that could easily become a “numbing” instead of an “awakening.” So for him anything at all could serve this essential purpose of awakening: scriptures, meditation, work, everyday encounters, paradoxical language, even outlandish behavior. Mostly and amazingly he believed in “ordinary life” as the best “alarm clock.” All this gets very formalized in later Japanese Zen in the famous koans of the Rinzai school and that’s a whole story in itself. But for Hui-neng anything at all and everything could be an instrument in his hands to help a person “awaken”–primarily because what was important and significant was within the person–or rather THE person standing right there, not some message that Hui-neng was trying to communicate, not some teaching–he was really down on that. The awakening is to one’s own self, the true self that is complete and lacking in nothing. Any system or approach that places one’s goal, one’s “happiness,” one’s “perfection,” somewhere out there is hopelessly wrong–you will never “get there”–this is the essence of dualism. Here is Merton: “In the relation between Zen master and disciple, the most usually encountered ‘fact’ is the disciple’s frustration, his inability to get somewhere by the use of his own will and his own reasoning. Most sayings of the Zen masters deal with this situation, and try to convey to the disciple that he has a fundamentally misleading experience of himself and of his capacities.”


Someone asks Pai-chang: “Who is the Buddha?”

Pai-chang answers: “Who are you?”


Let us conclude Hui-neng’s story with some more comments by John C. H. Wu:

“When Hui-neng learned how Shen-hsiu taught his disciples to ‘keep the mind still to contemplate silence and quiet, and to keep up the sitting posture without lying down,’ he remarked that ‘to keep the mind still to contemplate silence and quiet is a disease rather than Zen,’ and that ‘to keep sitting for a long time only shackles the body with no profit to the mind.’ He composed a gatha:

‘When alive, one keeps sitting without lying down:

When dead, one lies down without sitting up.

In both cases, a set of stinking bones!

What has it to do with the great lesson of life?’


Not that he rejected categorically the practice of Zazen any more than he rejected the use of words and letters. But he was careful to remind his disciples of the one thing necessary to realize the ever-abiding mind and to see one’s self-nature to attain Buddahood. All other things must be subordinated to the supreme end of Satori or enlightenment…. Hui-neng was one of the most thoroughgoing teachers of non-attachment. To him it makes no difference whether you are a monk or a layman, but it makes a world of difference whether you are attached or non-attached in spirit to the externals.”


The above is interesting in that today Zen is almost totally associated with meditation, and so is also all of Buddhism to a large extent. In Hui-neng’s circle meditation was a practice but only an auxiliary practice if you will. For him meditation, like study, can become an obstacle like any other obstacles to this “direct pointing to the mind.” Koans, which are the central element of the Rinzai school of Zen today, are also still in the future here. But its “seed” is beginning to be seen here in the give and take of “monkish encounters” and the use of paradoxical language. And speaking of this language, there is to be great caution in how we understand Hui-neng’s use of certain terms–like “emptiness” and “void.” Here he is in complete harmony with the whole Mahayana tradition. Listen to Burton Watson, the great translator of Chinese and Japanese Buddhist texts:

“This is the concept of shunyata–emptiness, or nondualism. Mahayana Buddhism in its writings manifests a profound distrust of words, insisting that the highest truth or reality can never be formulated or conveyed through verbal teachings, and Ch’an masters will be found repeatedly harping on this theme. When Mahayana texts designate the absolute, or highest truth, as emptiness, they mean that it is empty of any characteristics by which we might describe it. This is because it is a single, undifferentiated whole, and the moment we begin to applying terms to it, we create dualisms that immediately do violence to that unity. Hence even the term ‘emptiness’ itself must in the end be rejected, since it implies that there is something outside of emptiness that is not empty. If reality is a single, all-embracing oneness with nothing whatsoever outside it, then the entire phenomenal world as we know and perceive it, all time and all space, must be included within that unity. In the end, then, the absolute must be synonymous with the relative or phenomenal world; or, as the Heart Sutra puts it: ‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.’”


And finally Wu: “When Hui-neng speaks in terms of ‘within’ and ‘without,’ he is referring only to the effects of the self-nature’s functioning. In itself, the self-nature is identical with the non-dual Real, which is beyond space and time and above all attributes that human language can offer. Human language is at home dealing with the things of the phenomenal world, the field of relativity where all things seem to go in endless pairs of opposites. For Hui-neng as for Shankara, the Non-dual is that ‘before whom all words recoil.’ Whenever a mystic tries to express himself, his words are like so many thirsty blinded lions running in all directions in search of a hidden spring of water. In this sense alone can we see eye-to-eye with Hui-neng when he asserts that there is no difference between the enlightened and the unenlightened, or between Bodhi and klesha, and that self-nature is neither good nor evil. In his answer to a special envoy of the Emperor, he expounds the non-duality of the real nature in these terms: ‘Light and darkness are two different things in the eyes of the ordinary people. But the wise and understanding ones possess a penetrating insight that there can be no duality in the self-nature. The non-dual nature is the real nature. The real nature does not decrease in the fool nor increase in the sage; it is unperturbed in the midst of trials, nor does it stay still in the depths of meditation and Samadhi, it is neither impermanent nor permanent; it neither comes nor goes; it is neither in the middle, nor in the interior, nor in the exterior; it is not born and does not die; both its essence and its manifestations are in the absolute state of suchness.’”


After Hui-neng’s death a number of his disciples establish various schools of Zen, emphasizing this or that aspect of Hui-neng’s teaching. But all Zen lineages today trace their origins to Hui-neng. To be continued…..


(Caution: there is a lot of hokey stuff about Hui-neng on the Internet. Even the Chinese government is into it–they have named a power plant after him. Also, they have his embalmed body up in some kind of shrine. Also, there is this horrid little movie about him in Chinese with horrid English subtitles on You Tube.) All this, of course, is the very antithesis of what Hui-neng stood for.)








Red Dust

The world of red dust. This is an expression found in ancient Chinese Zen and Taoist poetry (sometimes simply “dust”).  It is a vivid image and a sharp metaphor–have you ever driven down a dusty dirt road? Imagine now villages, towns, and cities with nothing but dirt roads. So it was everywhere at one time. For the Chinese Zen poets (and poets inspired by them) the “world of red dust” was the world of human agitation and deluded activity toward accumulation, possession, a manifestation of greed, a seeking of power, the give and take of commerce, the pretentions of government and officialdom, etc., etc. What an apt metaphor! But it also refers to something much deeper…there are many references to “dust” in the heart and the mind.

A couple of examples:

            “The mountains stand unmoving just the way they are

All day they let the clouds roll out and roll back in

            Even though red dust is countless layers deep

            Not a single speck reaches my thatched hut”

                                    Han-shan Te-ch’ing (translated by Red Pine)


            “I carried books and a hoe in my youth

            When I lived with my older brothers

            Somehow I met their reproach

            I was even disdained by my wife

            So I left the world of red dust behind

            All I do now is wander and read

            Who’ll spare a dipper of water

            To save a poor fish in a rut”

                        Han-shan (the famous Cold Mountain, translated by Red Pine)



I am sitting at a campsite about 10,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada. All alone. The quiet is immense. Even more so than found entering an empty church or a true monastery. Oh yes, there are sounds–the wind blowing in the tall trees, the coyote at night, sometimes a bird…. But these sounds do not disturb the silence; in fact they only accentuate it, so you feel it sinking into you very deeply.

Merton quote: “No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence that is ‘heard’ when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.”

The wind in the trees says “Be Nobody.” Do not be afraid to be Nobody. That’s what the wind and the solitude say. Zhuangzi’s and Lin Chi’s (Rinzai’s) “true person of no rank”–no credentials, not even religious ones. Enter that nothingness where the fires go when they go out. The fire of your ego identity will go out too, with all its grasping at this or that identity. A scary invite. So misunderstood. Something in us pushes us to be “somebody,” to have all that stuff and all those people telling you who you are, that you are somebody. The world of red dust.

Las Vegas, Wall Street, the Pentagon, etc.–all these are merely externalizations of what we are inside, of the “dust” of our minds (or “hearts,” the hesychast would say). But there are deeper levels still.


Now I think of Ash Wednesday and our ritual: You are dust, and to dust you shall return. This is another and somewhat different use of “dust,” but it points in the same direction.


The Tibetan Buddhists express all this with different images. Some of them that are borrowed from their own native shamanistic Bon tradition are the demons, so prevalent in many of their festivals and rituals. The demons are all within one’s mind and heart, they are the devouring passions that eat people up with their unending demand for fulfillment. So, the seeking of liberation. The Christian Gospels touch on this in their own way also. Recall the various parables of Jesus and his sayings. Recall that vivid image of the man who is totally wrapped up in expanding his “barn” not realizing that he will soon die. And the Desert Fathers really read the Gospels in such an interpretative scheme.


It’s a very cool evening at 10,000 feet; the city below me is sweltering in heat. Interesting contrast! It’s so cold I am trying to build a fire to warm up. Full moon and wind. I am reminded of a Jack London short story, “To Build a Fire,” a story of a man who freezes to death in the Yukon as he is unable to build a fire. I read this story decades ago, in high school. Never have seen it since. Funny what things you remember at what points in your life. Mostly it is the red dust we carry within.


Why is it that all of us “good people” get so caught up in the red dust of religion? God is then no more than our own ego identity projected large, really large! The call to be Nobody is then totally incomprehensible; religion then becomes a way of enhancing the self, immunizing the self, instead of deconstructing the self. The Upanishads make it a Divine Calling. You are THAT! The Divine Reality does not make a big deal about being God! The Divine Reality is the “Ultimate Person of No Rank,” the Ultimate Nobody, abiding and hiding within all that is, or nothing would be. And the New Testament invites you to recognize yourself as a “child of God.” What if that’s the same call? I am beginning to agree more and more with Abhishiktananda, that without the interpretative schemes we find in Asia, Christianity has only a faint grasp of the “gift of God” and all that implies. Christianity itself partakes of the world of red dust — the delusions and confusions of human beings. Certainly this is not the “orthodox” view!


Merton’s “true self,” Lin Chi’s “the true person of no rank,” the Upanishad’s “You are THAT,” even the New Testament’s “child of God” language, all these point to something that is impossible to point to. That’s why all this language is mostly paradoxical, symbolic, and indirect.  Perhaps they all do not refer to the same thing, but what they do refer to has this common characteristic that it is not something that you can “grasp” and make it a possession or something that your ego can hold before itself. Who you truly are is therefore this Nobody which defies all categorizations–not something you can look at in the mirror and admire and measure and enhance, etc. All this is in the world of red dust. Who you really are is so limpid, so clear, so pure, so lucid, so luminous, that not a speck of dust can find a place to land. True religion is NOT “cleaning up all the dust”—that’s the shallow view of religion whether Buddhist or Christianity or anything else. Rather it is a realization, a waking up, to what is Real….


Consider one of the most significant, most profound and most fascinating encounters in the history of world religions which occurred when Bodhidharma met the Emperor of China. Recall that Bodhidharma was the Indian Buddhist monk who had inherited the mantle of transmission of that which was later called Chan or Zen, and he came to China for some reason to “spread this Gospel.” (Recall that Buddhism had already been in China for several centuries, but not the Chan kind. Let me now relate this story in the words and translation of John C. H. Wu:

“Bodhidharma arrived in south China in 527, and was immediately invited by Emperor Wu of Liang to his capital, Nanking. In his audience with the emperor, a devout Buddhist, the latter is reported to have asked, ‘Since I came to the throne, I have built countless temples, copied countless sutras, and given supplies to countless monks. Is there any merit in all this?’ ‘There is no merit at all,’ was the unexpected reply of the Indian guest. ‘Why is there no merit?’ the emperor asked. ‘All these,’ said Bodhidharma, ‘are only the little deeds of men and gods, a leaking source of rewards, which follow them as the shadow follows the body. Although the shadow may appear to exist, it is not real.’ ‘What then is true merit?’ ‘True merit consists in the subtle comprehension of pure wisdom, whose substance is silent and void. But this kind of merit cannot be pursued according to the ways of the world.’ The emperor further asked, ‘What is the first principle of the sacred doctrine?’ ‘Vast emptiness with nothing sacred in it!’ was the answer. Finally the emperor asked, ‘Who is it that stands before me?’ ‘I don’t know!’ said Bodhidharma, and took his leave.”

The Emperor is a devout Buddhist who is caught up in the “red dust” of his own religion. There is this self that accomplishes these pious acts and then waits for its reward; and of course the real reward is that all these acts come back and “congratulate” the doer and confirm the self in its illusory existence. People in monastic life do this all the time, and it is a waste of their monastic life. The trouble, of course, is not with the acts themselves but the mind of the doer. The Emperor, without realizing it, exhibits a typical dualistic vision. Can you see the comparable dynamic in Christianity? Well, the next statement by Bodhidharma will inevitably seem to most Christians as nihilistic and totally incompatible with Christianity: Vast emptiness with nothing sacred in it. But this is precisely the language of Chan for nondualism in all its deepest forms.


Much more about this later…..