[label]” and “Not-this [label]”. From this understanding we come to a characteristic of later Zen Buddhism in that it is full of seemingly complicated “This thing” “Not-this thing” arguments that can confuse very quickly. Sometimes this confusion is on purpose, but more often than not it simply referring back to the nature of Thusness being un-contingent and devoid of labels/concepts. This leads to a common trap experienced by Chan Buddhists of all types in that “Void” itself becomes a concept rising in the mind. A classic error highlighted by another story of Huineng.
The Chan Patriarch was coming to the end of his life and offered to appoint the successor who could write a poem showing their understanding. The top pupil of the temple wrote the following poem:
The body is a Bodhi tree,
The mind a standing mirror bright,
At all times polish it diligently,
And let no dust alight,
Huineng, who was only a youth working in the kitchens, was read this and asked a monk to write up his response:
Bodhi is fundamentally without any tree
The bright mirror is also not a stand
Fundamentally there is not a single thing –
Where could any dust be attracted?
Clearly the first pupil had fallen into the trap and conceptualised the void. Huineng is probably the most important Chan master in all history as his sutra (the Platform Sutra) is the main historical record of Chan back to Bodhidharma (That was until the – very few – writings of Bodhidharma pupils were discovered in a walled-up cave in Northern China in the early 20th century). Huineng’s sutras are probably not literally true historical record, as they were his teaching method, but they highlight his beliefs and understandings. His (supposed) mummy is still seated in zazen meditation pose in the Nanhua temple in Caoqi.
A monk practices
The school of thought crystallised by Huineng was to solidify Buddhism and ensured its survival in China (along with Daoism and Confucianism) for the next 400 years. One practical difference between the Chan and Indian forms of Buddhism is found in the monastic life. Chan (and Zen) focus on work by the monks, “A day of no work—a day of no eating” goes the famous Chan saying. This means Chan Buddhist Monks don’t need to beg for food in the morning like those in Laos, for example, as they are allowed to “work”.
Laos monks begging each morning
This puts a very different view on the monastic life and Chan/Zen monks are very hard working indeed.
Transmission to Japan
Zen Garden, Japan
Two main methods of Chan training were developed and different sects put emphasis on one of them or the other:
- Silent Illumination through Meditation in Zazen.
- Koan Riddle Introspection.
Koans are a form of poem or riddle with no clear answer. Examples include:
Who is it who now repeats the Buddha’s name?
Who is dragging this corpse about?
What is this?
What is it?
They started as short stories of previous enlightened Buddhist masters, but soon developed into testing riddles that pointed to direct enlightenment. The student is given the koan to study and examines it for meaning. He is then called back before the master to answer the riddle. Should his answer point to an enlightened insight then he progresses. If it doesn’t he is sent away with a pat on the back to try again.
A Buddha hidden in the back of a giant statue
While Buddhism transferred naturally to Japan through trade, none of the Chan schools flourished there until the two methods were transported by the Japanese themselves to become Zen (the Japanese translation of “Chan”).
Zazen Silent Illumination was transported in 1223 by the monk Dogen who was sent across the sea to study Chan with a mind to solve the riddle of “Why Buddha’s have to obtain enlightenment if all are born with Buddha Nature inside?” He tried the Koan schools, but found their lack of scripture reading to not be for him (something he was extremely critical of later in life). He then trained in the Silent Illumination method at Mount Tiantong. He received instruction he recounted as follows:
“To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to cast off the body and mind of the self as well as those of others. Even the traces of enlightenment are wiped out, and life with traceless enlightenment goes on forever and ever.”
After 4 years in China he took this teaching back to the Kyoto temple called Kenninji and wrote up a guide on how to use Zazen meditation as the core of practice. Eventually this led to his setting up his own school of Zen that became known as Soto (the rumour is that his precocious nature and disdain for the “lax” monks in Kyoto led to him being driven out on his own).
One of the Kyoto temples
This form of Zen is the most well known in the West thanks to a number of high quality books written by (modern) Zen masters settled in the US. Its teaching is focussed on Zazen being the only true Zen practice:
“To practice the Way singleheartedly is, in itself, enlightenment. There is no gap between practice and enlightenment or zazen and daily life.”
This echoes all the way back to Bodhidharma insights. Dogen created a very large volume of writings and records of his teachings, thoughts and sessions with other monks. This record shows that while he is one of the fathers of Zen, he thought it a silly name:
“If you use the name of Zen School you are not decedents of Buddha ancestors and also have poisonous views…”
His masterwork is called “Shobogenzo” and when he finally died of illness, in 1253, his pupils carried his message forwards with gusto.
The other great form of Zen transmitted from China is Rinzai; the inheritor of the Koan school and the foundation of that most Japanese of spiritual practices; the tea ceremony.
Traditional Japanese tea
Japanese monks had visited China to learn Chan from the 6th century forwards. These monks found among the Chan schools a sect founded by Linji (translated “Rinzai” in Japanese) Gigen (d.866 AD). They were the masters of the Koan method and had an emphasis on sudden awakening missing from the Tendai tradition found in Japan. Rinzai Chan was brought back from China by Myoan Yosai in 1187 who then left the Kyoto temples and founded Shofuku-ji on the island of Kyushu. Rinzai has a much more convoluted history than Shoto, but its practice and nature brought rich and powerful adherents and during the Samurai eras large, important temples were constructed in Kyoto to house Rinzai masters and become teaching centres of excellence of all Chinese arts.
A Kyoto temple
Rinzai emphasises “Seeing one’s true nature” as the heart of their teachings as well as a further deepening of any enlightenment before it can be formally recognised. Like Shoto, Rinzai has lots of Zazen, but this is coupled with Koan practice and hard work “done with mindfulness”. It is a rough, tough form of Zen that Bodhidharma would have certainly approved of. Rinzai himself was famous for beating his students with a stick to bring forth enlightenment and his koans were known for being very difficult to parse. He also shouted a lot, using the martial style shouts now seen in Karate known as Katsuo (Kiai in Japanese). For example, it is recorded in the teachings that:
A Monk asked: “What is the essence of Buddhism?”
The Master gave a Katsuo.
The monk bowed.
The master said, “This is one who can hold his own in a debate!”
Sometimes these interactions are quite funny and speak a lot for the western view of Zen masters:
Another Monk asked: “Master, from where is the song you sing? Where does your style come from?”
The Master said, “When I was with Obaku, I questioned him three times, and three times was beaten”.
The Monk hesitated.
The master gave a Katsuo, then hit him and said, “One cannot drive a nail into an empty space!”
Amongst the influential Japanese Rinzai masters was the great Takuan Soho, most remembered thanks to his connection to famous martial artists and for the invention of a pickle that still bears his name.
True Self is the Self that existed before the division of heaven and earth and before one’s father and mother were born. This Self is the Self within me, the birds and the beasts, the grasses and the trees and all phenomena. It is exactly what is called ‘Buddha Nature”.
This Self has no shape or form, has no birth, has no death.
– Takuan Soho (The Unfettered Mind)
Most notably was his friendship with the great swordmaster Yagyu Munenori (1571–1646) whom he wrote to as a penpal and his sponsorship from the third Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, who built for him the temple Tokai-ji in Edo (Tokyo). This deep-rooted connection to the Samurai meant that during the Tokugawa period Rinzai Zen flourished.
Both these Zen traditions survived Japan’s transition from Samurai led feudalism to a modern country during the Meiji Restoration, but the state religion changed to Shinto forcing Buddhism to adapt. However, Zen’s adoption by the Elite of Japan meant that it has had immeasurable influence on many aspects of Japanese life. From gardening to cooking, fighting arts to making tea, Zen has granted the Japanese a mindset focussed on the now and reaching into the void for creativity.
A Zen garden in Kyoto
In modern times other forms of Buddhism have risen, most importantly of all “Pure Land” Buddhism that brings the concept of faith into the Buddhist Canon. Nevertheless, Zen remains the quintessentially Japanese form with a core of Indian Buddhism around the blended steel of Daoism and Chan. A history of thought stretching back 2500 years.
Images from my Travels or my Computer Wallpaper Collection, which you can download here: http://www.outsidecontext.com/2009/07/16/the-buddhist-wallpaper-collection/