Zen 1

Zen teachings often appear deceptively simple. This misconception is compounded by the Zen claim that explanations are meaningless. They are, of course, but merely because genuine Zen insights can arise only from individual experience. And although our experience can be described and even analyzed, it cannot be transmitted or shared. At most, the “teachings” of Zen can only clear the way to our deeper consciousness. The rest is up to us.

Zen is based on the recognition of two incompatible types of thought: rational and intuitive. Rationality employs language, logic, reason. Its precepts can be taught. Intuitive knowledge, however, is different. It lurks embedded in our consciousness, beyond words. Unlike rational thought, intuition cannot be “taught” or even turned on. In fact, it is impossible to find or manipulate this intuitive consciousness using our rational mind any more than we can grasp our own hand or see our own eye.

The Zen masters devised ways to reach this repressed area of human consciousness. Some of their techniques—like meditation—were borrowed from Indian Buddhism, and some—like their antirational paradoxes—may have been learned from Chinese Taoists. But other inventions, like their jarring shouts and blows, emerged from their own experience. Throughout it all, however, their words and actions were only a means,

At the end of these means is an intuitive realization of a single great insight that we and the world around are one, both part of a larger encompassing absolute. Our rational intellect merely obscures this truth, and consequently we must shut it off, if only for a moment. Rationality constrains our mind; intuition releases it.

The irony is that the person glimpsing this moment of higher consciousness, this Oneness, encounters the ultimate realization that there is nothing to realize. The world is still there, unchanged. But the difference is that it is now an extension of our consciousness, seen directly and not analytically. And since it is redundant to be attached to something already a part of you, there is a sudden sense of freedom from our agonizing bondage to things.

Along with this also comes release from the constraints of artificial values. Creating systems and categories is not unlike counting the colors of a rainbow—both merely detract from our experience of reality, while at the same time limiting our appreciation of the world’s richness. And to declare something right or wrong is similarly nearsighted. In Zen all dualities dissolve, absorbed in the larger reality that simply is.

None of these things are taught explicitly in Zen. Instead they are discovered waiting in our consciousness after all else has been swept away. A scornful twelfth-century Chinese scholar summarized the Zen method as follows:

Since the Zen masters never run the risk of explaining anything in plain language, their followers must do their own pondering and puzzling—from which a real threshing-out results.

In this course we will watch the threshing-out of Zen itself—as its masters unfold a new realm of consciousness, the Zen experience.

By studying the stories of Zen and its teachers and practitioners, we hope you will come to a deeper understanding of and connection with Zen. Before we begin our story of Zen, in this lesson we look briefly at some issues basic to Zen.

  • -Buddha-mind, Buddha-nature
  • -Essential nature and self
  • -Zen and meditation
  • -Zen and enlightenment
  • -Words, anecdotes, stories and legends

We can say this about Zen: it is a practical method of realizing this buddha-nature.

From Zen’s beginning with Bodhidharma we see its core teaching: Enlightenment is available to anyone if only they can experience the intrinsic state of the mind, which is pure and inherently enlightened. This inherently enlightened mind, characterized by total freedom from all discriminating conceptual thought, delusions, and negative emotions, is called Buddha-nature or Buddha-mind.

An image often used to describe the ultimate nature of pure mind (“suchness”) is the sun, which is always shining. The mind’s relative or conventional nature is like clouds, delusion and negativity obscuring the light of the sun.

Seeing into one’s own nature (jian-xing) emerged explicitly as the essence of the Zen teachings and practice. Nevertheless, as we shall see in this course, Zen masters taught different approaches to “seeing” the Buddha-nature immanent in all things.

Why do our minds not dwell in their intrinsically pure state? If our Buddha-mind is intrinsically pure, why do our minds not “see” purely? And what are we to do about the defilements of the mind?

We shall see that Zen teachers approached this question in many ways. Does one need to actively practice to rid the mirror-like pure mind of impurities, or are the seeming impurities essentially unreal? Must one meditate for a long time to clear one’s mind of delusion, or does one simply learn how to dwell in the mind’s natural state? Is the dwelling in Buddha-mind a distant goal we can only achieve gradually after a lifetime (and perhaps lifetimes) of practice and study, or is our intrinsic Buddha-mind not something we need to strive to realize but rather immanent? These questions lie at the heart of our stories of Zen.

Zen masters have long said that to practice Zen is to become intimate with the Self. The Self is that expansive dimension to being often called essential nature. It includes and does not oppose the ego with which we normally identify ourselves and from which we create the ‘persona’ we present to others.

In learning intimacy with the Self, ego is transcended, its bondage is escaped, and it can be used freely, compassionately and wisely.

This relationship between ego and essential nature was illustrated by the Japanese Zen master Bankei (Lesson 31) with an analogy from needlework.

If the unborn Buddha-mind is the true nature of our ordinary minds then it must follow that it is to be found in the midst of our ordinary lives. In Zen training, intimacy with self confronts us with the world of everyday forms. This intimacy with the forms of the everyday world then confronts us with the reality of emptiness and impermanence. Dogen Zenji said:

It is this falling off of one’s body and mind that leads to the realization that there is no fixed entity commonly referred to as oneself, only boundless, infinite, unobstructed space.  As Andy Ferguson points out regarding the teachings that you will discover in this course:

Zen is often said to be “a teaching outside words and letters” While we obviously need words to communicate in a course like this, the Zen view is that if we rely only upon them we may be in danger of substituting a knowledge about something for the effort of striving for a direct experience of its reality.

The Zen method is to demonstrate reality, not to describe it in words. Thus Zen training methods are designed, sometimes quite ruthlessly, to give the practitioner a direct experience of unveiled, unadorned reality. While information is acquired and passed on from one person to another, the experience of Zen is concerned with the nature of our innermost being. In as much as we are content to chase after mere knowledge about Zen, we may become clever academics, but we could fail to confront the mystery of our own existence as human beings, and therefore fail to understand Zen.

As the Zen master Wumen (Mumon) warned:

Or as Peter Matthiessen observed about attempts to express the quality of “Zen” in words:

That said, at the same time that Zen teachers have admonished their students to seek direct experience and regard book learning of any kind with skepticism, a massive Zen literature was evolving.

Acknowledging the old masters admonition to seek realization directly rather than through analysis, we hope to avoid succumbing to this temptation by keeping the words “about Zen” to a minimum. Instead we are presenting the stories of Zen.

Zen’s history is, really, the sayings and doings of the ancient Chan and Zen masters. First recorded by faithful students, these records were repeated, commented on, and eventually even codified. As we will, see the stories of the early masters became Zen, eventually presented as objects of meditation or koans.

As Zen reached Japan, the new Zen adherents did the same with the Chan, not only reading the legends and sayings of the early masters but also expounding on them and collecting their comments into books. (As Zen comes to the West we can see the same impulse to read, teach, and comment on the ancients.)

he anecdote was and is an ideal Zen teaching device, forcing the listener to find its meaning in his own inner experience. While talks (sermons) were often the medium for presenting the theoretical basis for Zen idea, it was the anecdote showed the theory in action and made the listener share in a real experience, if only vicariously. And so we present much of the story of Zen in the form of anecdotes and exchanges between masters and between master and student.

The exquisite traces of enlightened beings

Today, the exchanges between the Zen ancients continue to play an important part in Zen study. But applying a system of logic, or non-logic, to all of these wonderful stories is not the point. They are the recorded examples of expressions of truth and the application of skillful means for the sake of people in an age far removed from our own. They are the exquisite traces of the work of enlightened human beings, and they should inspire us not to mimic them, but to personally realize the source that gave rise to them.

Robert Aitken Roshi comments on the old stories in this manner:

Rather than writing about moment-to-moment awakening, this course presents the stories (and legends) which offer vivid (graphic) depictions of exhaustive practice, long journeys, and sudden awakening gained through dramatic encounters between master and student.
We are challenged to remain receptive to stories from another time and place, deploying a “language” often alien to us—seeming sometimes to be astonishingly terse, the language seems to point beyond itself, meanings seeming to slip in under the radar of our mental pictures of the world.
In his Zen’s Chinese Heritage, an extensive record of the words of the Chinese masters, Andy Ferguson points out:
Andy Ferguson also reminds us that from its earliest formative days in China, Zen took root and then flourished as a monastic system.