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.

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Altar Sutra: The Sudden School and the Gradual School

While the Patriarch was living in Pao Lin Monastery giving teachings there was a competing teacher in the North of China named Shen Hsiu.

Shen Hsiu was a very accomplished and respected student of the Fifth Patriarch. Many people expected Shen Hsiu to receive Dharma Transmission, but it went to Hui-neng instead. Shen Hsiu’s Ch’an lineage died out, so all Ch’an lineages today descend from Hui-neng.

The two schools were sometimes called ‘Sudden’ and ‘Gradual’. Many Ch’an students wondered which school they should follow.

Seeing that many were having this difficulty, the Patriarch gave this teaching:
“The truth is there is only one School. Distinctions are not real. While there is only one Dharma, some students realize it more quickly than others.

As far as the Dharma is concerned, distinctions between Sudden and Gradual do not exist.”
Many of the followers of Shen Hsiu had negative things to say about the Patriarch and his teachings. Shen Hsiu himself, on the other hand, always said that the Patriarch was Enlightened and gave good teachings.

A student of Shen Hsiu named Chi Ch’eng came to learn from the Patriarch. They discussed the differences between the two Schools.

“How does your teacher give instructions?” the Patriarch asked.
“He tells us to meditate on purity, to keep up the sitting position all the time,” replied Chi Ch’eng.
“To meditate on purity and restrict ourselves to just sitting is not helpful,” Hui-neng replied, “Listen to my stanza:
A living man sits and does not lie down all the time
A dead man lies down and does not sit.
Why should we impose this task of just sitting?”

Bowing, Chi Ch’eng said, “Although I have studied Buddhism for nine years under the teachings of Shen Hsiu, my mind was not Awakened. But as soon as you gave this teachings I was Enlightened. Please teach me more.”

“Tell me how your teacher gives instructions in Morality, Meditation, and Wisdom,” Hui-neng replied.

“According to his teaching,” Chi-cheng said, “To refrain from all evil is Morality. To practice whatever is good is Wisdom. To purify one’s own mind is Dhyana. May I know your system of teaching?”

“I am not a teacher. I am an awakener. If I told you I had a system that I transmitted to others, that would not be correct. I liberate my students from suffering with whatever means the situation requires.
The way your master teaches Morality, Meditation, and Wisdom is wonderful, but my explanations are different. The teachings of your master are for followers of the Mahayana School. Mine is for those of the Supreme School. In expounding the Dharma I speak what I realize intuitively. I do not deviate from the Buddha nature that is inherent in all of us.
The true teaching of Morality, Meditation and Wisdom should derive from our Buddha nature.

Listen to my stanza:
To free the mind from impurity is the Morality of Buddha nature.
To free the mind from disturbances is the Meditation of Buddha nature.”

Addressing the assembly of students one day the Patriarch said, “I have an article which has no head or name, no front or back. Do any of you know it?”

A young student named Shen Hui came forward and replied, “It is the source of all Buddhas and the Buddha nature of Shen Hui.”

“I have told you already that it is without name and yet you name it.”

Again, from Taoist philosophy: “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” the truth is beyond words and labels.

Seeing that the students had many questions the Patriarch said, “One who walks the path should do away with all thoughts, good as well as evil. It is merely an expedient that we put a label on Buddha nature. This non-dual nature is our true nature upon which all Dharma systems of teaching are based. One should realize their Buddha nature as soon as they hear of it.”

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The Altar Sutra: Temperament and Circumstances

A monk named Fa Hai in his first interview with the Patriarch asked him to explain the meaning of the proverb: “What mind is, Buddha is’.

The Patriarch replied, “Prajna is mind. Samadhi is Buddha. In practicing Prajna and Samadhi, let them be equal. Then our thoughts will be pure. This can only be understood if we practice.
Samadhi functions, but does not become. The teaching is to practice Prajna as well as Samadhi.”

After hearing this Fa Hai was Enlightened.

He said, “Now I know the causes of Prajna and Samadhi, both of which I wll practice to free myself from attachment.”

One day Chih Ch’ang asked the Patriarch, “The Buddha taught about the ‘Three Vehicles’ and also the ‘Supreme Vehicles’. Can you explain this?”

The Patriarch replied, “Look within yourself. The differences between these four vehicles don’t exist in the Dharma, but only in our minds.”

“To see, hear, and recite the sutra is the small vehicle.”
“To know the Dharma and understand it’s meaning is the middle vehicle.”
“To put the Dharma into practice is the great vehicle. To understand thoroughly all Dharmas, to absorb them completely, to be free of attachments, to be above phenomena is the Supreme Vehicle.”

“All depends on practicing things yourself, so you do not need to ask more. But I will remind you at all time that your true nature is Awakened.”

Chih Ch’ang bowed and thanked the Patriarch. He acted as the Patriarch’s assistant until his death.

Things could get confusing here. Branches of Buddhism are divided into ‘yanas’ or vehicles. In the modern world the most common division is Hinayana, Mahayana (of which Hui-neng is a member), and Vajrayana. But, that’s not the division Hui-neng is talking about. The three yanas he is referring to are these:
Sravakayana: For those who attain Enlightenment by listening to or reading the teachings of the Buddha.
Pratyekabuddhayana: Those who achieve liberation by practicing the Dharma but do not teach others. They are said to remain silent and solitary.
Bodhisattvayana: Those who attain Enlightenment in order to help awaken others and lead as many to Enlightenment as possible.

One day the Patriarch was looking for a place to wash the robe he had inherited. He found a stream to wash it behind the monastery and when he was washing it a monk appeared.

“My name is Fang Pien. When I was in South India I met the Patriarch Bodhidharma and he told me to return to China.”

Bodhidharma is the first Chinese Patriarch, the man who brought Dhyana teachings to China. He is the first in the lineage which claims Hui-neng as the sixth. Because he couldn’t still be alive in Hui-neng’s time, it seems that Fang Pien is telling a story about meeting Bodhidharma’s ghost.

“Bodhidharma told me that the lineage had been transmitted to you, so I came to find you. Can you show me the robe and bowl that you have inherited?” Fang Pien said.

“After a long voyage, I have arrived.  May I see the robe and begging bowl you inherited? ”

The Patriarch showed him the robe and bowl.

Fang Pien showed the Patriarch a life-like sculpture he had made of Bodhidharma.

The Patriarch gave Fang Pien a special blessing.

A monk quoted the following stanzed by Dhyana Master Wo Lun: “There are ways and means to protect the mind from all thoughts. When circumstances do not react on the mind, the Tree of Enlightenment will grow steadily.”

Hearing this the Patriarch said, “The writer of this stanza has not realized Awakening. To put it’s teaching into practice would not Awaken you.”

The Patriarch recited his own stanza:
“Hui-neng has no ways and means to protect the mind from all thoughts. Circumstances often react on the mind. How can the Tree of Enlightenment grow?”

 

Posted in altar sutra

The Altar Sutra: Dhyana

The Patriarch gave this teaching:

In our system of meditation we don’t dwell on the mind nor do we dwell on purity. Also we are active.
As to dwelling on the mind, the mind often leads us to delusion. When we realize this, there is no need to dwell on it.

As to dwelling on purity, our true nature is pure, so there is no reason to dwell on it. Dwelling on purity is to create a problem where none exists.

On another occasion the Patriarch gave this teaching:

What is sitting in meditation?
In our school, to sit means to gain freedom and to be mentally undisturbed by outward circumstances.
To meditate means to sit, dwelling in our Buddha nature.

What are Dhyana and Samadhi?
Dhyana means to be free from attachment to outer objects and Samadhi means to have inner peace. If we are attached to outer objects then our minds will be disturbed.
When we aren’t attached to outer objects, our minds are in peace. Our true nature is pure and the reason we are disurbed is because we allow ourselves to be carried away by circumstances and external objects.

One who is able to keep the mind undisturbed regardless of circumstances dwells in Samadhi.

To be free from attachment to outer objects is Dhyana and to attain inner peace is Samadhi. When we are in a position to relate to the world in Dhyana and to keep our minds in Samadhi, then we have attained Dhyana and Samadhi.

The Bodhisattva Sila Sutra says, “Our Essence of Mind is intrinsically pure.”

Let us realize this for ourselves and train ourselves to practice it and attain Enlightenment.