Posted in tattooed buddha, zen

The Flower and the Smile

It’s said that the lineage that we call Zen started in a place called Vulture Peak.

It’s said that it started when the Buddha was silent, in the space between words—it was the teaching of no-teaching. His students asked for a teaching, as they did many times. Instead of speaking, as they expected, he just raised a flower. It was a white lotus and he just held it up and showed it to everyone.
The symbol of the Zen tradition is the Enso, an empty circle drawn with a brushstroke. I humbly suggest that the symbol should be a flower instead.

All of the assembled students were just confused and disappointed, as we can imagine we would be, except for one. His name was Mahakasyapa.
Mahakasyapa smiled.

The point is usually said to be that the dharma isn’t something you hear or read. It’s experiencing this moment as it is, purely and directly. Everyone else was waiting for some great philosophical teaching. Mahakasyapa just sat there and experienced the Buddha raising a flower. At this point, the Buddha declared that Mahakasyapa was his chosen successor, that he had attained enlightenment just as the Buddha himself had.
Mahakasyapa was an important historical figure. He convened the first council after the Buddha’s death, where everyone got together to recite and share the Buddha’s teachings that they had memorized. In Theravada temples he’s sometimes depicted in art hanging around with Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and attendant.

Is this story true?

If it is then the Zen lineage passed through 27 teachers without anyone really talking about it, until Bodhidharma took the lineage to China and replanted it, where it then changed a little to become more like the nature religions of Taoism and Confucianism (as Buddhism often does when it enters new cultures).

Here’s an explanation that I think is more likely:
There were Buddhists who traveled to China to spread the teachings of the Lankavatara Sutra. In those days that was really how different groups of Buddhists defined themselves. They didn’t have rigid lineages like the ones that exist now. It’s said that the Lankavatara Sutra is the one that Bodhidharma brought with him.
Once these Buddhists arrived they encountered resistance.

They learned from the Buddhist sects that had already formed in China: Huayan, Tiantai and Pure Land. In these sects different things became emphasized to make the teachings more acceptable to Chinese culture. A history was created to embody authenticity—not fabrication, mythmaking. Fabrication implies negative or selfish intent.
We might view mythmaking as lying in the modern world, but only if we don’t realize that expecting stories to be literally true is a new idea. Things can be meaningful by being true in a non-literal sense and that’s how things have been throughout much of human history.
It could be argued that the Zen tradition formed in response to those other forms, as an effort to create a Chinese form of Buddhism that was more in line with the Buddha’s original teaching. Pure Land, with it’s chanting and wishing for rebirth in heaven, and Tiantai, with it’s focus on secret and mysterious teachings, seem very different from the Buddha’s three simple trainings. Huayan is the closest, and it’s easy to see how much it influenced the Zen tradition. Huayan, inspired by the Avatamsaka Sutra, is known for being a little more philosophical, mystical, and positive than Zen. Zen is known for being more down to earth. I think those lines are very blurry. If you look for philosophical and hard to understand Zen teachings you can definitely find them.
Zen lineages can be strict and sometimes I wonder if I’d like Huayan more. I would have certainly loved to study with a Huayan teacher if the lineage hadn’t already died out.
I think the Zen tradition formed the same way that other religions always seem to, not from one guy looking at a flower. Rather, I think it formed from a slow process of accumulating teachings and being influenced by the other forms of spirituality that were around.
Plenty of people will tell you they think the flower and smile story literally happened. I don’t think so, but I think it doesn’t matter.

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Posted in ch'an, zen

Zen and Zen Stories

What we call the Zen school is really a mix of a few different things.

It includes the original teaching of the Buddha, which I call First Turning Buddhism, and the spirit of Chinese culture at the time. What we call “Zen meditation” is a method for training the mind that is practiced in First Turning Buddhism and in what we call the Great Way, Mahayana Buddhism.

The original word is Dhyana, which means “concentration” or “quiet meditation”. So, when we talk about the Zen Tradition we’re really talking about “The Tradition That Practices Meditation”. But if we’re honest, a lot of traditions practice meditation, although that wasn’t the case when the Zen Tradition started. The Zen tradition is also sometimes called the Mind School, or the Prajna School, which I think might have been a cooler name. This is because the tradition is all about training the mind in order to engage our true selves.

But, while the tradition started out as a get-back-to-meditation, kind of bare bones approach…it’s slowly deviated from that, sometimes moving away from the it’s roots, as traditions often do. In plenty of Zen circles you won’t see anything resembling a bare bones approach.

 

Anyway,

The earliest Zen teachers really wanted to set Zen apart. There were a lot of Buddhist traditions in China at the time and some of them said the path to Enlightenment was very easy.

The truth is beyond words. It’s about practice and not study. That’s the important point that the Zen teachers were trying to emphasize. They thought too many people were into studying Buddhism and not very many were into actually practicing Buddhism.

Zen isn’t something you learn about, it isn’t something you study, and it isn’t something you are. It’s something you do.

That’s how Zen teachers started telling stories. Stories are words too, though. Obviously they are made up of words. The Zen stories are words that tell you how to go beyond words. Stories about people who were attached to words and had that attachment shattered. Kind of silly an circular, if we really think about it.

Stories are helpful because they can be used to illustrate a point. Sometimes the difference between a successful religion and one that struggles to find followers is based entirely on which religion has better stories. We love stories.

Here’s a story.

The Buddha stood at a place called Vulture Peak in front of a bunch of people. There were monks and nuns and also regular people like you and me. It’s said that there were a million people, but that seems far-fetched. It’s said that spirits and celestial beings were there too, but I don’t believe those are real.

People were expecting a teaching and the Buddha just stood there, not saying anything. Everyone was just sitting there waiting, looking around awkwardly. I’m imagining what it would be like to go to a concert and see the band just standing on stage not performing.

Then, the Buddha held up a pretty flower and twirled it, showing it to everyone.

So, still everyone was standing around awkwardly.

And one guy who they call Kasyapa the Elder just smiled.

 

That’s supposed to be the beginning of the tradition. They say Kasyapa was the first Zen teacher. They say the teachings were entrusted to him because he understood the truth that’s beyond words. There is as much truth in a pretty flower as there is in a teaching. Enlightenment is right here. It’s everywhere. That’s the message.

I once heard someone say, “Just because it’s made up doesn’t mean it’s less true.”

Kasyapa was a real person and was considered one of the best monks in the early sangha. The point of the story isn’t “this really happened” or maybe originally that was it’s purpose but we don’t have to pretend it really happened now. (no one wrote about this or, as far as we can tell, told this story until hundreds of years after the Buddha’s lifetime)

The point is it tells us something.

Talking about Buddhism is great. Learning about Buddhism is great too. But sometimes life is about paying attention and noticing little things. Sometimes it’s about looking at a pretty flower.

Stop and smell the roses. Don’t attach to words so much, even Buddhist words. The truth is right here.

That being said…now I wonder if people in the Zen Tradition are becoming too attached to stories, if they’re thinking of them as IMPORTANT rather than as useful teaching tools. I hope we don’t forget that the tradition came from teachers who wanted a simpler, back-to-basics approach to Buddhism.

Zen is full of stories like this, of some teacher pointing the way in a creative way. That’s really what sets Zen apart the most. The teachers are still pointing and we just have to look.

Chan: The Meditation School

What is Chan Buddhism?

 Chan Buddhism is a path that of cultivation. We are cultivating clarity, awareness, compassion, and the wisdom of going beyond our narrow point of view.

Chan is a branch of Buddhism, but maybe it’s more than that. It’s a way of being in the world. We are trying to, through mind training, have a direct awakening that helps us understand the world and our place in it.

Chan is called the Meditation School. When people said, “Chan Buddhists” they meant, “Those Buddhists over there who meditate.”

The Japanese version of the Chan tradition is called Zen, which is a  word a lot more people are familiar with.

The meditation tradition was created as an effort to focus more on the core teachings of Buddhism: the cultivation of mindfulness and awareness. Chan Buddhism is focused on this life, here and now. Our true nature is something that’s always present and not something we have to wait for. We can all dwell in wakefulness right now, in this life, not in some future one.

In the Chan tradition practice isn’t separated from our lives. Practice involves the cultivation of mindfulness, compassion, wisdom, and intuition.

We do traditional mind training practices in sitting still. But we also cultivate mindfulness in day to day life. In our busy lives there are opportunities to find a few moments to stop, relax, and clear our minds.

We have a constructed image in our minds of who we are and what the world is. Chan is about being in the moment without the constructs. Dropping ego. Dropping the past and our thoughts about the future and engaging with the present moment. Master Dogen called it “The dropping away of body and mind.”

Easier said than done. Our minds want to do anything but stay in this moment. Chan involves learning to quiet our minds and penetrate through these layers of delusion. Chan is teaching our minds how to sit still and how to se things clearly.

We do this by following a set of principles: meditation, mindfulness, and morality.

Want to know more?

 

Welcome to Chinese Zen by John Crook

Chan Practice by Mark ShenYun Gilenson

Principles of Chan Buddhism by Daniel Scharpenburg

The Flower and the Smile by Daniel Scharpenburg