Boundless Way Zen

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An Essay by
James Etsujo Ford

A special transmission outside scriptures;
Not depending on words or letters:
Directly pointing to the mind;
Seeing into one’s nature and attaining the Way.

This essay is meant to provide a foundation for practice. Hopefully it will also be taken as an invitation to a direct knowing that is our heritage as human beings. The premise upon which what follows is simple enough. To understand Zen as something other than the mysterious wisdom of the Orient, we need to hear some stories, acquaint ourselves with some straight forward exposition, do a little reflection and engage in some analysis. Then, we need to let go of all that stuff and walk the path for ourselves.

To recall that old metaphor of the cookbook might be helpful. To begin to cook most of us really need a cookbook. I know my own faltering first steps in cooking required the assistance of those who had already learned to cook. And as a beginning Zen student I similarly needed the guidance of those who had gone on before. But, of course, at some point we have to stop reading and cook. And even after beginning to cook we need occasionally to refer back to those cookbooks that helped us get started.

The caution to beginning Zen students to not get caught up in studying has a serious point. We need to avoid the trap of our human minds to reify, to take that which is contingent and to make it the Real complete with that capital "T." The premises of Zen are in fact quite simple. They speak to who we are as human beings as a sort of direct pointing. So many teachers suggest simply sit down, shut up and pay attention. And if that doesn’t work, well here’s a koan to keep you occupied.

I suggest while we need to sit down, to shut up and to pay attention; we also can profit from a little orientation. To serve that end what follows are some stories, some reflection and some analysis that I hope will point you, dear reader, toward an understanding of this ancient way that helps you on your own timeless path. But we should also recall the point. Ultimately this is an invitation to our own direct engagement, yours and mine, with the great matter of life and death. This is a map for us on our own most intimate way of discovering who we are from before our parent’s birth.


The Life & Teachings of the Buddha

The first story is that of the Buddha. Here we have an historical person, born within the foothills of the Himalayas, near the border of what is now India and Nepal, sometime between the sixth and fifth centuries before the Common Era. His given name was Gautama Siddhartha. In many ways his story is our story. His quest and his finding are each our possibility. Like each of us Siddhartha was born royal, with all the potential of the world before him. But in his young adulthood he found he could not escape the vision of sickness, old age and death. Nor could he avoid of the image of a monastic renunciant, a seeker after wisdom.

Siddhartha gave up his throne (and, opening a recurring conversation among contemporary western practitioners, he abandoned his family) to become a wandering mendicant. After studying with many of the great teachers of his day, after a time of extreme privation and self-torture, he instead sought a middle way between the luxuriant self-indulgence of his upbringing and the extreme asceticism of his spiritual quest until that time, focusing instead on silent but persistent attention to what was right in front of him and what was rising in that moment within his mind.

Then one morning as Venus crossed over the horizon as the morning star, as he simply gazed at that miracle of beauty, he understood, he awoke. In that ecstatic moment the Buddha declared, "I see all the beings of the world and I awake together." Buddha simply means awakened. In the traditions of Buddhism immediately following his great enlightenment the Buddha expounded to his companions, the "First Turning of the Great Dharma Wheel," the essence of the Buddha way.

The word dharma literally means law. Here the Buddha unraveled much of the mysterious processes of reality, proclaiming the true nature of the cosmos and how human beings may reach salve, healing of the self and the world. I really believe in this sermon, the Buddha painted for all of us a way home.

These teachings are summarized as the "Four Noble Truths." Angel Kyodo Williams and other contemporary western Buddhists suggest we might more appropriately call these insights the four simple truths. There is a quality to "simple" that commends it to us as a possibly preferable use. At the same time there is something to the traditional word "noble," as well. So before enumerating what these four things, simple and noble are, I would like to touch briefly upon the terms "noble" and "truth."

My fellow former student of Jiyu Kennett, David Brazier writes on this subject, saying succinctly "Noble means worthy of respect." Just a little later he adds, "Noble also means courageous." And "truth" he adds, we should see simply as "that which is real." Perhaps as we reflect on these teachings of the Buddha we see how they can be our courageous encounter with the real. Over the many years I’ve walked this path, this certainly is what I’ve come to believe.

The first of these truths, these courageous encounters with reality, is an assertion that human life is characterized by dukkha. Dukkha is a Sanskrit term usually translated as suffering. This is true but not complete. Two modern western teachers Robert Aitken and Stephen Batchelor, both whom I admire enormously, suggest the word anguish might do the job better than the word suffering. And there is a need to allow the insights of Buddhism to be heard naturally and not as some exotic and rare creature.

However, we are probably wise to be slow in adapting new terms borrowed from English to stand for the technical terms of this ancient way. We need to be wary of the new nuances that taking on native terms will give those old terms. Sometimes this enriching can be useful, but sometimes not. And particularly I think not early on, when we are still caught in the glamour of this new wisdom, and might in fact be imposing unexamined assumptions onto the teachings. Within the sense of this caution, as Buddhism finds a home in the west, dukkha is one of those terms I suspect will need to be carried whole into English. I think this will also prove true for any other Western languages where the dharma takes root.

Dukkha means suffering, anguish, angst, that general sense of dissatisfaction that seems to so many observers to characterize the human condition. Dukkha is that sense of dis-ease that follows even success, the dreadful spoiler of all accomplishments. And it means something more. This is an important point, frequently missed in our often over-psychologized era, where everything too often is reduced to the concerns of ego or self. Dukkha cannot be reduced merely to its psychic features.

This profound dis-ease also has to do with the pain of cancer and the horror of a child starving to death in some war torn country. It also has to do with inevitability: for instance the inescapable fact of our death, yours and mine. The universe is large and we are each of us, a very small part of that whole. Sickness and death, hunger and the tearing of the planet itself are all encompassed within this dukkha. Our whole experience, not only our psychology is marked by dukkha.

The Buddha’s second truth dukkha samudaya explains the cause or origination of dukkha. Here the personal and the impersonal meet. It turns on pratiya samutapada, the inner, spiritual or psychological experience that co-arises with the phenomenal experience of dukkha. The Buddha claimed our psychological experience and our physical experience each in fact influences the other; to some degree even co-create each other.

But this is not the facile egoism, the "I create the universe" type of thinking associated with a fair amount of contemporary New Age teachings. Instead here we find the whole ancient mess is a part of it. I am a part of it. You are a part of it. Each of us, and each part of us, arises together with everything else in all its aspects. Here our emotions, our thoughts, every blessed part of us, just as it is, arises and falls together with everything else rising and falling within the cosmos: Co-arising: the universe and me, the universe and you. Here everything is deeply intimate.

The second noble truth speaks of clinging and the rejection of clinging. However, the Buddha was not advising one to withdraw from life. He had a different point. He was in fact showing that every time we cling to something we are clinging with our bare hands to water flowing downstream. It is not that it should not be done; it simply cannot be done. Ultimately there is nothing to cling to, nothing permanent to hang onto. So our human suffering aspect of dukkha follows our attempt to cling to what is passing. But there is another important point to be gathered here. The great question contained within this second observation, this second truth, is not about giving up fire, but rather learning how to use it.

It appears this desire to cling is a consequence of our ordinary human consciousness. We have an innate and astonishing ability to divide things. These powers of the human mind allow us to distinguish and therefore to compare and contrast; allow us to analyze everything. This analysis reveals how to build a dike, how to cultivate corn and how to kill each other very efficiently.

Like the knowledge of good and evil that came from eating the fruit of that tree within our western source myth, this ability of ours to divide the cosmos does make us like gods. And it is a presenting feature of us as human beings within all our passingness. For both good and ill it is something that marks us out among the creatures of this planet.

Now, as the story from the Bible tells us, this ability also births death. Without dividing the cosmos we simply live and die, and there is no distinction from one side of the coin to the other. Unfortunately here language fails us. Before language life and death is one thing. It is with language, with that dividing of life and death into separate things, that we find this terrible knowing that even as we are born we will die. Within our divided universe mortality haunts the human condition.

Then there is a chain of consequences in our thinking. At the same time we become aware of death we also find how we reify the things of the world. As we become aware of death we recoil and deny it. And so we tend to attribute permanence, substance, to constructs, to composites as all things and beings in this world actually are.

So we cling to our loved ones and to our own lives desperately wanting them to be permanent, when in fact they are beautiful and precious, but also so very much passing. Now this is important, to not cling is not necessarily to turn away. In fact I suggest this spiritual action of letting go should never involve turning away. Our suffering world and we ourselves are intimate. So the way through is to hold all things, including our very selves, with open hands. In this difficult but necessary action we discover how we can return to Eden as human beings. We can learn how to use the fire of our minds to good purpose.

The third truth has to do with the fact we do not have to suffer in the sense of dukkha. We can go home. You and I - each of us can join all our parts; can find our true selves. There is an authentic sense in which we can find Eden, that place from before the dividing of the cosmos. There is a sense in which all the things, all the parts can be held without undue suffering, without anguish. The promise of the Buddha is that there is a peace that can be obtained by human beings within our human consciousness.

The technical term for this is dukkha nirodha. Its traditional meaning is extinguishing, or exterminating, or destroying dukkha. But, I think we can reasonably look at it as something broader. Here David Brazier makes an important distinction, one I think corrects centuries of misapplication by many teachers. There is a tendency within Buddhism as it is practiced to turn away from the world. But, to do so is a mistake.

As we examine it, we find how etymologically nirodha means a "dam, a bank, or a shore." Secondary meanings include "stopping, confining, surrounding." We’re not about extinguishing in all these spiritual disciplines, we’re husbanding, we’re banking, we’re creating the container within which to hold the fire. To shift the image, and it is necessary in exploring this way to never to sit too comfortably with a single image, we discover we’re finding our true path to our true home.

Brazier speaks of our insight into this third noble truth as conversion. "Conversion occurs when a person deeply sees the state of their life and decides to do something about it. This means seeing how they have been acting in a programmed way and stopping this conditioning from continuing to dominate them." It is both that simple and that difficult.

And this leads to the fourth noble truth, marga, which literally means the path. It is a middle way that shows us how to hold things, our loved ones, ourselves, the cosmos itself with open hands. Traditionally, and in that first great sermon of the Buddha, the middle way is described as an eight-fold path consisting of right, or correct, or profitable view, resolve, speech, conduct, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. Personally, I’ve always had a hard time holding this list in my head.

But this middle way can also be divided into three parts, which I have found more helpful, and I suspect others may as well. Here we find all the "rights," the "corrects," the "profitables," the "nobles" have to do with a "simple." It is all simply about conduct, mindfulness and wisdom.

That conduct or morality is a core element of the middle way can be a surprise for people who think of Zen as being free of all constraints. But, the simple truth is that we live in a causal world. The second of the Buddha’s noble truths is elaborated in a description of the world being created out of causal relationships, the cosmos and everything within it is a weaving of relationships. And if this is true, then, of course, our behaviors count.

The difference here is that Buddhist moral constraints have nothing to do with rules delivered to please a deity, and everything to do with discovering a sense of harmony with all things and respect for the passingness and beauty and uniqueness of every thing. It has to do with our finding home. So, the basic lay code of behavior presented by the Buddha, the Five Precepts call us to not kill, not steal, not lie, not misuse sex and to not become intoxicated. As we go on I will elaborate on these principles as well as their expansion as the Vinaya of traditional monastic ordination and as the Sixteen Bodhisattva precepts.


Bodhidharma and a Teaching of Boundlessness

The second story is of another Indian prince, Bodhidharma, who comes to China to bring this way of awakening. He encounters a king who asks what merit had been generated by the king’s many acts of beneficence including the funding of numerous monasteries and hospitals. Shockingly Bodhidharma replies, "No merit."

When the outraged king demands to know who this impertinent monk is, he replies simply, "Don’t know." That "don’t know," that not-knowing mind becomes the uniquely Zen way of expression of Siddhartha’s waking together with all the beings of the world.

Here the subtext of what the Buddha taught all those ages ago in the shadows of the Himalayas and which informs the Zen way to this day, is the truth of that key ingredient which is emptiness: sunyata. Sunyata is the emptiness of all conditions as in anitya. And sunyata is the emptiness of our very selves, as in anatman.

Within Buddhism there have been over the years many ways in which this sunyata, this emptiness has been understood. However, however differently nuanced the various understandings have been, from the beginning sunyata has been a central point. Sunyata is so central, particularly to what Zen is, that I think it can be quite helpful to walk through some of the progression of Buddhist understandings of this core teaching over the years.

First we find it in the sutras, the sacred texts attributed to the Buddha himself, where sunyata is mainly understood as standing for the fundamental impermanence of things, as well as explaining those terms anitya, impermanence, transitoriness and anatman, the impermanence of persons. By the beginning of the first century before the Common Era, particularly in the Prajanaparamita cycle of sutras, the Heart Sutra so beloved of Zen practitioners and others, our understanding of this emptiness that is sunyata is extended to include even the categories of mind, and beyond that even the structures of creation.

Nagarjuna a north Indian Buddhist monk living on the cusp of the second and third centuries of the Common Era seems to have provided the first systematic reflection on the nature of sunyata, which allowed later Zen practitioners to go straight to the heart of the matter. Through a process of critical dialectic, arguments designed to take any positive assertions about reality to their "reductio ad absurdum," Nagarjuna used sunyata as a vehicle taking one from a relative understanding to an absolute understanding of the nature of reality, from being lost in the realm of forms, then seeing through them to our essential emptiness, or perhaps more correctly our non-essential emptiness.

He also appears to be the first Buddhist thinker to clearly note the identity of dependent co-arising and emptiness. This is a very important point. Dependent co-arising, paticca samuppada, is an essential insight on the Buddhist way, and is another core term for anyone practicing Zen to understand. To understand it correctly is to understand how our suffering arises and, most importantly, how our liberation from suffering can be achieved.

The essential insight of dependent co-arising is that we exist within a web of mutual co-creation. The web is a picture to help us imagine it, but don’t get tangled in the threads of that web. Try to avoid the trap of reification, of making concrete that which is dynamic. This dependent co-arising is not a thing, but a process. It is the how of things, each arising and falling within this process.

Traditionally, this process of dependent co-arising is described as a twelve-fold chain, starting with ignorance, then out of that karmic formations which give rise to consciousness, which gives rise to self-awareness, which reveal the five physical senses as well as cognition, which then gives rise to contact, then to feeling, then to craving, then to grasping, then to becoming, then to birth, then to decay and death. After which it repeats.

Within the reality of impermanence this seems to be an accurate description of the process, the how of it all. Certainly, however this might be nuanced, reality does seem to take shape in a flow of causal relationships very much like this, and the twelve-fold category points to that. Nagarjuna observed this process is sunyata; this process is emptiness.

This identification of the process of reality and ultimate reality provides a radical perspective on our lives. It speaks of our possible healing from the wounds of our existence. It points to how we can live fully within our impermanence and our broader reality. Here with this insight about the identity of our very selves with the flow of the universe that is itself in every way empty.

And this is the point. Nagarjuna’s perspective was aimed at direct realization of our deepest reality. His method was logical and philosophical. As such he was a rigorous proponent of his negative-philosophy, relentless in his logical rigor. Following his death two schools emerged based on his teachings. One was the Prasangika, which continued this rigorous and relentless logic. Eventually it would be called the Madyamika.

The other school, the Svatantrika, allowed that some terms point more accurately toward emptiness than others. This second school gradually developed as the Yogacara, with a positive use of such technical terms as "consciousness" and "mind." One such term I find very useful is tathagata garbha, Buddha-nature or sometimes "womb of the Buddha," which in Yogacara is used a synonym for emptiness. I find this a rich image, pregnant, if you will, with all the possibilities of our human condition.

This would be further explored and expanded as Buddhism entered China. Here in its encounters with Taoism Buddhists would see the Chinese term k’ung, "emptiness" in its organic use as the source from which all things arise as a further clarification of their original insight into the nature of emptiness as co-dependent arising. And just about equally important, I believe, this would further reinforce that sense of the feminine, the motherly, the womb of the Buddha, as a primary metaphor for the dynamic quality of sunyata.

By the time the Zen schools began to emerge in the early middle-ages, this maturing understanding of emptiness as identical with the phenomenal world was firmly established. And what is so important in this process of clarification is that it has taken us relentlessly on a journey to what we really are.

Here as we discover this emptiness, the possibility, what I find best called the openness, that we all are, then we also discover the world that we are is sacred, not to be despised or despoiled, but rather should be cherished as the very body of the Buddha. In fact there are many consequences to this insight. For one small but telling example, out of this experience we find such things as the emergence of naturalistic landscape paintings in Song China, hinting for us at the sacred nature of the ordinary.

Any time someone glances at the altar of our Boundless Way Zen sitting group in Newton, Massachusetts, the Henry Thoreau Zen Sangha, it is easy to see how we are the heirs to this perspective. There we have a copy of a Song period bodhisattva Manjusri. Bodhisattva is a Buddhist term, particularly used in the Mahayana, "Great Vehicle" Buddhism, the larger school that births Zen, and means an "enlightenment being." A bodhisattva is an archetype of possibility. The Song was also a period of experimentation and syncretizing. And in that spirit the figure on our altar has aspects, iconographic details that also suggest another bodhisattva, Guanyin.

Manjusri is the archetype of wisdom and is the traditional figure on Zen altars. Usually Manjusri is portrayed sitting atop a lion while brandishing a sword, ready to cut through our delusions. Guanyin on the other hand is the archetype of compassion, and is frequently portrayed as a woman. Our Manjusri is a somewhat androgynous figure, hinting at Gunayin, and lounging comfortably on the lion. I really like this particular form. Here we find a way of compassionate wisdom, or maybe better still compassion/wisdom where our thingness and our emptiness, our openness are reconciled.

Here in a comfortable fit, we find a dynamic understanding. All things are as they are. No thing has a separate reality. Manjusri: ordinary, languid, erotic, and real. Manjusri: our very wisdom, yours and mine, is lounging comfortably in the world, ready to leap from the body of the lion. Wisdom is ready to act. Wisdom in fact is action.

Our lives are dynamic, now this, now that. But, as one comes to see how we are at once one and every aspect of that one is open, then we can begin to walk a path that is our true gift from the Zen way. The Zen way we are walking has nothing to do with retreat from the world. Zen has nothing to do with a denial of our genes and history, of our place in the great flow of all that is. Rather living Zen is about our most intimate connection with the world wherever we find ourselves, meditating in a monastery, washing dishes in our home, or doing business on Beacon Hill.

As the Zen schools began emerge in early Medieval China they offered some significant shifts from the emphases of classical Buddhism. In that older Buddhism the emphasis was on suffering and the clinging of the mind which leads to suffering. Much of the enterprise of Buddhist life was avoiding the paths that lead to grasping. Zen offered something different, something lively and engaged. Most of these new perspectives followed the dynamic exploration of sunyata, the intimate investigation of our profound openness.

Huineng & the Way of Sudden Awakening

And then there is that third story. It takes place in China at the beginning of the seventh century. Dajian Huineng’s father died when he was three. Due to the extreme poverty of his family he was forced from a very early age to help support his mother by cutting and selling firewood. One day as he was carrying a load of kindling into town he overheard someone reciting a line from a sacred text. "You should activate your mind without it dwelling anywhere." Just hearing these words were enough and the boy who was ripe for this moment, awakened.

There are several points here. One is that awakening is not something out there, or down the line. It is found right here, right now. Another point is that awakening is about our ordinary human mind. This is something you and I can achieve. And the parameters of an awakened mind are not difficult, at least in their describing. "You should activate your mind without it dwelling anywhere." This is it. Here in a boy carrying wood and hearing some words, we find a presentation of the awakened mind, the central object of the Zen search, its goal achieved.

But the story doesn’t end with that moment. The boy asked the source of this text, and was told it came from the Diamond Sutra, one of the books of the Prajanaparamita cycle and had been given to the speaker by the Zen master Daman Hongren. In the story of the Buddha, when the great urge to awakening pulled him to the path he abandoned his family. This, however, is a Chinese story, so the faithful youth first made arrangements for the care of his mother before heading north to further explore and deepen his understanding.

While on his journey he stopped with a family that included an elderly nun. As he began to explain the meaning of obscure texts to her, it was immediately obvious to the nun that while untutored, indeed while illiterate, the young Huineng had great natural wisdom. She encouraged his sharing reflections on the received teachings, reading the sacred texts and asking him to comment. Friends and neighbors began to gather to hear the young man’s teachings. Soon people were traveling for miles around to hear the young sage speak of the way of a mind that is active but resting nowhere.

However before long he thought to himself, "I seek great wisdom, why should I stop halfway?" And so he continued on to Hongren's Here we catch another critical aspect of the Zen way. One may, indeed one must achieve insight for oneself. But, there are two additional points. One’s initial insight, authentic as it is, is also likely to be shallow. While a taste of water and the ocean itself are both water, there are always greater depths to plumb.

And we need checking, confirmation of our awakening. The human mind is a powerful thing, and our ability to deceive ourselves is almost limitless. So within the Zen way a teacher, someone who has walked the path, who knows the traps and snares, is seen as very nearly essential. People are self-realized, we all are. But to go to the depths we almost always need companions and guides.

Eventually Huineng arrived at the monastery. When given an interview with the master, Hongren asked the youth from where did he come, and why did he wish to enter the community? Huineng replied he came from the Guangzhou in the south, and that he wished to become a Buddha. The master laughed and said no one in the south has Buddha-nature. This might be like someone in Boston saying no one from Iowa has Buddha-nature. This was probably a joke; almost certainly a joke. But also certainly, it was an invitation to a deeper encounter.

And the young Huineng was up to the encounter. He corrected the teacher. "Within common understanding it can be said there are northerners and southerners, but can that be true within Buddha-nature?" Here we find an echo reverberating throughout the world’s faiths. Paul declaring "In Christ Jesus there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female." And the Sikh founder the Guru Nanak declaring upon his own awakening "There is no Muslim, no Hindu." When the alert mind does not settle into one thing and another how can there be discrimination? Here it becomes obvious the boy’s insight was not shallow.

Hongren was satisfied, so the Huineng was set to work husking rice. He settled into the rhythms of monastic life for eight months. During this time he probably had no further encounters with the teacher, other than perhaps hearing him lecture. As a lay-practitioner, the young Huineng may not even have had the opportunity to sit in the meditation hall. But all this time that active mind settled nowhere, continuing to deepen.

This opens another door for us, points to another aspect of what the way might be. The word Zen means quite literally meditation. And much of Zen is about meditation. So it can be immensely helpful to notice how the "official" story of one of the founding teachers of Zen doesn’t have him spending any great amount of time with his teacher, and it is unlikely he even was given the opportunity to formally sit in the meditation hall. While Zen is the great meditation school of Buddhism, and while Dogen Zenji one of the most significant of Japanese Zen teachers could correctly note how zazen, Zen meditation and enlightenment are one thing, the point of Zen resides at a deeper place than the bare term meditation might imply.

Around this time Hongren decided to name his successor. Because this is a story, he decided to frame a contest to find that successor. He declared "The great way is difficult to understand. So, I don’t want you simply to regurgitate what I’ve said to you all these years. Instead, I want each of you, my students, to compose a brief verse that demonstrates your own intimate understanding."

Again, because this was a story, only one person wrote a verse, and that was the head monk, Yuquan Shenxiu. In the story he was hesitant to bring it directly to his old teacher, so instead he wrote it anonymously on the wall of the great hallway.

The body is the tree of wisdom.

The mind but a bright mirror.

At all times diligently polish it,

To remain untainted by dust.

The master saw the verse and declared, "Very good. Very good." But in private he was concerned the writer, whom he was certain was Shenxiu had not yet penetrated to the deepest matter. However, before he was forced to confer the transmission on an unworthy successor, Huineng came into the hallway, and because he was illiterate, had to ask a monk what it said. When he heard the words, he said, "No, that’s not it." And he asked the monk to write another verse.

The tree of wisdom fundamentally does not exist.

Nor is there a stand for the mirror.

Originally, there is not a single thing,

So where would dust alight?

When the master saw this, he knew it was written by the successor he was seeking. He also knew, somehow, this must have been written by the young lay-practitioner he’d set to work husking rice eight months before. He announced, "No, this is written by someone who has yet to understand the matter fully." And had it erased.

That evening, he went to the shed, and the encounter recorded by the Japanese master Keizan Jokin in his Denkoroku presented for us as a koan, a burning question demanding a response that is our very awakening itself, took place.

The thirty-third ancestor was Zen Master Huineng. He worked in the rice-hulling shed at Huangmei. Once, Zen Master Hongren entered the shed and asked, "Is the rice white yet?" The master answered, "It’s white, but it hasn’t been sifted yet." Huineng struck the mortar three times with his staff. The master shook the sifting basket here times and entered the ancestor’s room.

Of course, the story continues after that encounter. This meeting is the mid-point in Huineng’s story. Following this exchange the teacher gives him signs of transmission, formal acknowledgement that Huineng’s realization is the same as his. Here the signs are the old master’s own robe and bowl, which have been passed down to him through successive teachers from Bodhidharma himself. There is a flight into the dark. And miracles follow in his wake like day follows night, like spring follows winter.

Another monk, a former general, catches up with him and demands the robe and bowl. Huineng says they are symbols, not realization and puts them down for the monk to pick up. But when the monk discovers he cannot pick them up, he repents his grasping after mere trappings and becomes a follower of Huineng. The young sage continues on his journey. After years in the wilderness cultivating ever deeper his fundamental realization, Huineng is ordained a monk, and eventually founds a monastery. And soon his teachings on the immediacy of understanding become the hallmark of the southern school of Zen.

As the generations pass Huineng’s is the Zen line that prevails. All of us, of whatever nationality, of whatever culture, of whatever Zen sect whomever walks the Zen way, we are his heirs. He is a real human being, a story about the way and a map for our own quest. His teaching is about who we really are, and what it is we can find in our seeking.

The Story Continues

Zen Buddhism exists within a web of stories, ancient and modern. There are the founding stories themselves, of human quest and finding, of how we are one and many, of how we need to drop even that insight at some point should we hope for true liberation for ourselves and the world. There are the stories of our founding teachers, deep and wise, and subject to every failing of the human condition. Each story is a facet of the jewel, reflecting our world and our potential.

The contours of history are also stories. Some facts are chosen, others ignored. The chosen facts are polished and placed in an order that conveys a sense of order and direction. While the artificiality of this needs to be remembered, there is also much truth to be gleaned through our attending to the stories of history, particularly, I feel, the sacred stories of the Zen tradition.

And the Zen tradition tells of a line of teachers leading directly back through Huineng, who is known as the sixth Chinese ancestor, through to Bodhidharma and then back to India and through a line of twenty-six teachers eventually leading to the Buddha himself.

However, as we’ve already seen there is little historical basis for this. The Indian lineage list is simply a hodgepodge collection of prominent Indian Buddhists put together in roughly chronologically. Even the Chinese list of five ancestors leading to Huineng can only be traced to the documents of the school of Huineng. Why there is nothing about lineage before the seventh century in China is obvious to anyone reading into the life and teachings of Gautama Siddhartha.

While some of what the Buddha actually taught is open to debate, and is debated, the weight of scholarly opinion suggests the early Sutra collections; the traditional anthologies of his teachings are largely accurate. And in them the Buddha was clear there would be no personal succession following his death. He named no heir. Rather he wanted to be succeeded by the rule of the Order, and his teachings.

Zen, its flavor, its particular foci, all arises in China. While clearly a Buddhist school, Zen at its origin is also very much Chinese and owes much to the insights of the Watercourse Way, the Taoist path, and to a lesser degree to Confucian perspectives. So, any serious consideration of Zen spends a great deal of time in China.

By as early as the fourth century there are records of Chinese Buddhists practicing forms of meditation. By the sixth century the remarkable Zhiyi, one of the founders of the Tiantai School was writing Chinese influenced meditation manuals. Throughout the sixth century various meditation masters began teaching, some gathering large followings of monks and nuns, some influencing governmental officials.

Then, while all the mythic structures are not yet completely in place, and certainly not all the institutions, by the seventh century when Hongren is guiding the brilliant young Huineng, there clearly is one particular emerging meditation school with distinctive characteristics, marking it out from both its Indian ancestors and the other contending schools of Chinese Buddhism.

It isn’t until the eighth century, however, when one of Huineng’s successors, the monk Heze Shenhui began a polemical attack on that other of Hongren’s successors, the unfortunate head monk of the stories we receive both in the Platform Sutra and in the koan collections that we find any sustained references to a Zen transmission. At the time of these attacks Shenxiu’s is the primary line of Zen, a school with an emphasis on practice and study and gradual cultivation. Countering this Shenhui asserted that an immediate and unmediated experience is the core of the Zen way.

He also asserted his line to be the only authentic succession from Hongren, both Shenxiu’s and Huineng’s master. It is with Shenhui’s polemics against Shenxiu that we first find the clear description of a lineage in Zen as something other than simply the traditional ordination. Here we find emphasis put upon realization itself, and a seal of approval for that realization.

In the Platform Sutra the story is clear. Hongren presents the young Huineng his robe and his bowl as signs of his formal acknowledgment of the youth’s realization and his, Hongren’s, naming Huineng his successor as a teacher. While the robe and the bowl are traditional symbols of ordination, it is clear from the context of the story in the Platform Sutra that this is not what is going on during that meeting in the rice-husking shed. The Platform Sutra describes how some years later Huineng would be formally ordained as a monk. So, something else happened in that night meeting.

The robe itself that is said to have been passed down was Bodhidharma’s. If at that time the act of transmission was shrouded in mystery and story and myth, within one more generation transmission was a formal reality. This was clearly about transmission of a spiritual authority, the acknowledgement of realization and the right to teach in the name of the lineage tracing through the various ancestors back to the Buddha. And this transmission was clearly distinguishable from those who had simply received ordination into the monastic sangha.

The evidence of transmission changed from time to time, and from community to community. At one point the symbol of the transmission would be a copy of the Platform Sutra. At various times robes, books, pictures and eventually documents would be the outward sign of Dharma transmission.

Lay people practiced this way as well as monks and nuns. And significantly, lay people received Dharma transmission. Perhaps the most famous of these early lay practitioners was Layman Pang. Near the end of the eighth century while studying with the master Shitou, Pangyun experienced his awakening, and was given formal approval by the master. He went on to study with Mazu with whom he continued to deepen his practice. But he never sought ordination, instead he married and raised a family, all of whom in the traditions achieved awakening.

Time passed and the Northern School, as Shenxiu’s lineage came to be called, would die out. While the arguments of sudden and gradual which fired the controversies between North and South would find other vehicles, the lines tracing from Huineng would become the sole source of all Zen institutions. So, while it is unlikely anything like a Zen lineage went back much farther than Huineng, or at least farther than his teacher Hongren; there is no doubt from at least this point the living line of the Zen way very much pours forth.

Ironically Shenhui’s line would also die out. Tracing through other heirs of Huineng, Mazu Daoyui and Shitou Xiqian would become the sources of the living Zen lines that exist throughout East Asia and into the West today.


Encounter and Presence

Within a few generations the broad shape of what we understand as Zen had taken form. The famous verse attributed to Bodhidharma, which we’ve already reflected upon, although undoubtedly a construction from the Tang era proclaimed what Zen is.

A special transmission outside the scriptures,

Not based upon words or letters;

Directly pointing to the mind

Seeing into one’s true nature, attaining the Buddha way.

Here we find the rhetoric of the Zen way. Its focus is upon direct realization that is not bound by texts or even oral traditions. One may point to it. But we must, each of us, find for ourselves how we are at one with the great way.

Several ironies have followed this grand assertion. For instance many observers have commented how this tradition outside words and letters has produced an amazingly prodigious body of sacred literature. Also this way of direct pointing and personal realization has had a long and formal history with leading personalities and formal institutions.

Over the generations various schools based in part upon lineage and in part upon areas of focus and practice emerged, flourished and passed away, while others continue to this day. Mazu gained fame for his direct and sometimes violent presentation of the way. While the other significant personality of this formative period was the profoundly intellectual Shitou, presenting a more refined and gentle Zen.

With these two formative personalities we can see the broad outlines of what would emerge as the two great foci of practice in Zen. The heirs of one teacher would tend to emphasize immediate and direct experience, while the heirs of the other would tend to emphasize the identity of practice and enlightenment.

After Mazu and Shitou the next personality to help significantly shape the institutions of Zen would be Baizhang Huaihai, a Dharma heir of Master Mazu. Baizhang is said to have established a Zen monastic rule, the first great shift from the Vinaya organization of Indian monasticism. While the history of the matter is a bit more complicated than the bare telling would have it, the shift toward having a specifically Zen rule is significant. This rule, like others that already existed, allowed for a settled community, a major departure from the Indian understanding of a wandering monastic community. This development of settled communities was undoubtedly a significant factor in the rooting of Buddhism and Zen in Chinese soil.


Linji Yixuan

One of Baizhang’s heirs was Huangbo Xiyun. Perhaps the greatest of Huangbo’s heirs was Linji Yixuan. There are two stories of Linji’s enlightenment. I think it can be useful to recount one of them here. Linji had studied the way diligently for years. In his early monastic career he had immersed himself in the monastic rule and had devoted considerable energy to mastering the traditional texts. Dissatisfied he turned to Zen, studying with Huangbo.

Eventually he went to his teacher and asked about the principle of the Buddha way. By way of response Huangbo struck the hapless monk. This incident repeated three times, when Linji decided he had had enough and prepared to leave. As he was about to go Huangbo told him to visit the master Dayu. Linji made his way to Dayu’s monastery and related how it was he had come to visit.

Dayu remonstrated Linji, saying "Huangbo is such a grandmother for you. He completed exhausted himself for your sake." At that moment Linji had his great awakening. Spontaneously he replied, "There isn’t all that much to Huangbo’s Dharma." Dayu grabbed the monk and demanded, "Why did you say that?" Linji proceeded to poke the old master three times. Laughing Dayu said, "You have to return to Huangbo. He’s your teacher. This is none of my business."

So Linji returned and visited with Huangbo, telling him all that happened. Huangbo responded by saying, "How I’d like to catch Dayu and give him a bit of the stick!" Linji replied, "Why do you say ‘like to’? Why don’t you take it now?" And he slapped his teacher. "You’re crazy," said the master, turning to his attendant. "Take this lunatic to the monk’s hall."

Linji’s style, following in the line from Mazu, to Baizhang, to Huangbo was dynamic and vital. The school that would emerge from this line of teachers, would be named for master Linji, and Rinzai in Japan. This school is characterized by the practice of k’an-hua-chan, the Zen of words, the Zen of koans.


Dongshan Liangjie

Then there is the other great line. One of Shitou’s heirs was Yaoshan Weiyan. One of his heirs was Yunyan Tansheng. Among his Dharma heirs was Dongshan Liangjie. Like Linji, Dongshan was an eleventh generation master of the Chinese Zen path, counting from the mythical founder Bodhidharma.

As a young student of the way he read the Heart Sutra, and went to his teacher asking, "It says in the scripture no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, and so forth. But I have eyes and ears and a nose. Why does the text say there is none?" The monk who had been guiding him said simply, "I don’t know." He then sent the young monk to find a Zen teacher.

Dongshan visited the great Nanquan and then Guishan, which proved to be a fateful encounter. Dongshan told the old master how he had heard Nanyang Huizhong had once said "inanimate beings expound the Way." Dongshan admitted "I don’t understand this."

This anecdote turns on a conversation between a student and the master Hui-chung. The student asked, "What is the mind of the Buddha?" Hui-chung replied, "Wall tile." The student asked, "Isn’t a wall tile inanimate?" The teacher said, "Yes." "But it can expound the Way?" "Beautifully, constantly." The student asked, "Why can’t I hear it?" The teacher replied, "You may not hear it. But others can." The student asked, "Who can hear this?" The teacher said, "The wise."

The student changed tack and asked, "Can you hear it?" To which the master replied, "No. If I could I would be wise. Then you would not be able to understand me." The student asked, "Can’t ordinary beings understand this?" To which the master said, "I teach for the sake of ordinary beings, not for the wise." The student persisted. "After ordinary beings hear it, then what?" The master said, "Then they’re no longer ordinary beings."

So Dongshan asked, "Can you please explain this for me?" Guishan held up his fly whisk, and asked, "Do you understand?" Dongshan admitted he did not. So Guishan said, "Go to master Yunyan Tansheng. If you persist he’ll teach you."

Dongshan went to Yunyan and told him what had happened, and then asked his question again. "I don’t understand that line. ‘Inanimate beings expound the Way.’ Who can hear inanimate beings expounding the Way?"

The teacher replied "That which is inanimate can hear." Dongshan asked, "Can the master hear?" Yunyan replied, "If I could hear it, then you couldn’t hear me expounding the Way." Dongshan pushed, "Why wouldn’t I be able to hear?" Yunyan held up his fly whisk. "Can you still hear, or not?"

Dongshan said, "I cannot hear you." Yunyan replied, "When I expound the Way you can’t hear. So how do you hope to hear when inanimate beings proclaim it? Haven’t you heard that line from the Amitabha Sutra, ‘The lakes and rivers, birds, forests; all chant Buddha’s name, all proclaim the Way?" With this, Dongshan had his great awakening. He wrote an appreciatory verse.

How incredible!

How incredible!

Inanimate things proclaiming Dharma is inconceivable.

It can’t be known if the ears try to hear it.

But when the eyes hear it, then it may be known.

Together with his student Caoshan Benji, Dongshan would count as the founder of the Caodong school, known in Japanese as Soto. This is the school noted for mokusho chan, the Zen of silent illumination.

While there are other lines of Zen, these two would flourish over the generations, the one eventually championing the way of intimate examination of phrases and words, stories, bits of poetry and fragments of folklore as vital opportunities for shaking off the layers of assumption, the other championing the way of simple presence as the living way itself; both vital expressions of the Zen way of awakening.


The Institutions of Zen Begin to Take Shape

The Tang, which spanned from the end of the seventh century until early in the eighth century, was a time of incredible achievement. Among other things this was the time block printing was invented, marking a new era in the transmission of human knowledge. It was also a period where art and literature flourished. At this time the governmental system based upon civil service entered into through open examination reached its apex.

And this is the era that birthed the Zen schools. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor and the Pure Rule of Baizhang, were composed during this time. Of enormous importance for the development of the Zen schools numerous "lamp" accounts of the lives and teachings of prominent monks and nuns began to be compiled.

By the middle of the eighth century the Tang had fallen into serious decline. Invasion, misrule, and regular revolt marked the next five centuries. It was during this time the institutions of Zen began to take shape. Following the great persecution of 845-846 shook Buddhist institutions to the core. And out of this the Zen and Pure Land schools began to assume dominance.

While the mythic history suggests independent Zen monasteries, the reality was something different. Chinese Buddhist monastic institutions were pan-sectarian. An abbot could be a Zen practitioner, while his successor might be a member of the Pure Land school, or even of another school. At the same time increasingly through the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Zen school began to dominate the leadership of the great monasteries.

By the beginning of the tenth century the Tang dynasty fell. For the next fifty years there was a period of chaos which only ended with the rise of the new Song dynasty. The Song which flourished from the end of the tenth century to near the end of the thirteenth century is often dismissed as a period of decline for the Zen schools. In fact this was a new creative era that focused on reformation of the Tang ideals. Just as it was for other schools of thought for the Zen schools the Song was a critical period of consolidation and institutional development.

It was also in the Song that the idea of lineage becomes increasingly important. As abbacies which were becoming reserved to the Zen schools, could be open to incumbents of any lineage, competition among the lineages began to increase. For instance Tiantong monastery, where Dogen would receive his Caodong training, when he first visited at the beginning of the thirteenth century was led by a Linji abbot. Two years later he returned and the new abbot belonged to the Caodong school. The next abbot, however, would again belong to the Linji school.

It was during this period that the great koan collections, the Gateless Gate, the Book of Serenity and the Blue Cliff Record, were compiled and published. And it was during this time that the shape of the Zen story took its mature form, that story of the Buddha passing on his permission to lead to a disciple who would begin a line of teaching that would lead down the generations, to a master of that line coming from India to China, and eventually masters of this line coming to the west.

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