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…….