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Thomas Merton on Zen
Zen is deliberately cryptic and disconcerting. it seems
to say the most outrageous things about the life of the
spirit. It seems to jolt even the Buddhist mind out of
its familiar though routines and devout imaginings, and
no doubt it will be even more shocking to those whose
religious outlook is remote from Buddhism. Zen can
sound, at times , frankly and avowedly irreligious. And
it is, in the sense that it makes a direct attack on
formalism and myth, and regards conventional
religiosity as a hindrance to mature spiritual
Zen resolutely resists any temptation to be easily
communicable, and a great deal of the paradox and
violence of Zen teaching and practice is aimed at
blasting the foundation of ready explanation and
comforting symbol out from under the disciple's
supposed "experience."
we must admit it is perfectly logical to admit, with
the Zen Masters, that "Zen teaches nothing." One of the
greatest of the Chinese Zen Masters, the Patriarch,
Huineng (see Lesson 9) was asked a leading question by
a disciple:
"Who has inherited the spirit of the Fifth Patriarch?"
(i.e. who is Patriarch now?)
Huineng replied: "One who understands Buddhism."
The monk pressed his point: "Have you then inherited
Huineng said: "No."
"Why not?" asked the monk.
"Because I do not understand Buddhism."
Huineng (rejects) teaching . . . a doctrine about
enlightenment. (Then) he would be disseminating the
message of his own understanding of Zen, and in that
case he would not be awakening others to Zen in
themselves, but imposing on them the imprint of his own
understanding and teaching. Zen does not tolerate this
kind of thing, since this would be incompatible with
the true purpose of Zen: awakening a deep ontological
awareness, a wisdom intuition (Prajna) in the ground of
the being of the one awakened.
Since the Zen intuition seeks to awaken a direct
metaphysical consciousness beyond the empirical,
reflecting, knowing, willing and talking ego, this
awareness must be immediately present to itself and not
mediated by either conceptual or reflexive or
imaginative knowledge. And yet far from being mere
negation, Zen is also entirely positive. Let us hear
D.T. Suzuki on the subject:
Zen always aims at grasping the central fact of life,
which can never be brought to the dissecting table of
the intellect. To grasp the central fact of life, Zen
is forced to propose a series of negations. Mere
negation however is not the spirit of Zen.
Hence, he says, the Zen Masters neither affirm nor
negate, they simply act or speak in such a way that the
action or speech itself is a plain fact bursting with
Zen. Suzuki continues:
When the spirit of Zen is grasped in its purity, it
will be seen what a real thing that (act - in this case
a slap). is. for here is no negation, no affirmation,
but a plain fact, a pure experience, the very
foundation of our being and thought. All the quietness
and emptiness one might desire in the midst of most
active meditation lies therein. Do not be carried away
by anything outward or conventional. Zen must be seized
with bare hands, with no gloves on.
It is in this sense that "Zen teaches nothing; it
merely enables us to wake up and become aware. It does
not teach , it points" The acts and gestures of a Zen
Master are no more "statements" than is the ringing of
an alarm clock.
All the words and actions of the Zen Masters and of
their disciples are to be understood in this context.
Usually the Master is simply "producing facts" which
the disciple either sees or does not see.
In the relation between Zen Master and disciple, the
most usually encountered "fact" is the disciple's
frustration, his inability to get somewhere by the use
of his own will and his own reasoning. Most sayings of
the Zen Masters deal with this situation, and try to
convey to the disciple that he has a fundamentally
misleading experience of himself and of his capacities.
"When the cart stops," said Nayan, the Master of Mazu,
"do you whip the cart or whip the ox?"
And he added, "If one sees the Tao from the standpoint
of making and unmaking, or gathering and scattering,
one does not really see the Tao."
If this remark about whipping the cart of or the ox is
obscure, perhaps another mondo (question and answer)
will suggest the same fact in a different way.
A monk asked Baizhang, "Who is the Buddha?"
Baizhang answered: "Who are you?"
A monk wants to know what is Prajna (the metaphysical
wisdom-intuition of Zen). Not only that , but
Mahaprajna, Great or Absolute Wisdom. the whole works.
The Master answers without concern:
"The snow is falling fast and all is enveloped in
The monk remains silent.
The Master asks: "Do you understand?"
"No, Master, I do not?"
Thereupon the Master composed a verse for him:
It is neither raking in nor giving up.
If one understand it not,
The wind is cold,
the snow is falling.
The monk is 'trying to understand" when in fact he
ought to try to look. The apparently mysterious and
cryptic sayings of Zen become much simpler when we see
them in the whole context of Buddhist "mindfulness" or
awareness, which in its most elementary from consists
in the "bare attention" which simply sees what is right
there and does not add any comment, any interpretation,
any judgment, any conclusion. It just sees. Learning to
see in this manner is the basic and fundamental
exercise of Buddhist mediation. (
If one reaches the point where understanding fails,
this is not a tragedy: it is simply a reminder to stop
thinking and start looking. Perhaps there is nothing to
figure out after all: perhaps we only need to wake up.
A monk said: "I have been with you (Master), for a long
time, and yet I am unable to understand your way. How
is this?
The Master said: "Where you do not understand, there is
the point for your understanding."
The monk said: "How is understanding possible when it
is impossible?"
The Master said: "The cow gives birth to a baby
elephant; clouds of dust rise over ocean."
From Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Thomas Merton (New
Directions - 1968)
- - - - - - - - - Ferguson -- -- - - - 1b
. . . concepts like "mind" and "realizing
self-nature" might rightfully be dismissed as fanciful
by anyone not familiar with the astounding lives of the
Zen ancients. The authentic ancient masters, without
exception, displayed certain quite remarkable
characteristics. Chief among these characteristics was
an ineffable sense of total freedom and ease, of peace
and equanimity. Such repose is not a "learned"
behavior. It appears to be the natural result of truly
shedding concern with one's self. It seemed to arise
from those ancients' realization of the self's "empty"
nature, that is, that the self is not an independent,
sovereign entity. The ancients would say, however, that
simply realizing genuine self-nature is not enough. The
realization must be upheld and sustained with long
practice if it is to avoid becoming a mere intellectual
understanding. [Zen's Chinese Heritage]
By our conventional understanding, the Zen ancients
lived in a society so far from us in content, space,
and time that we risk quickly dismissing their
relevance. But Zen, in its greatest definition, is not
less relevant today than it was in feudal China. It
remains important precisely because the enlightenment
of the historical Buddha and his Zen descendants does
not depend on considerations of culture, behavior,
social relationships, intellect, or gods and goddesses.
. . . According to all the old masters, this
realization is not to be achieved through analysis, but
must be directly experienced. [Zen's Chinese Heritage]
Though there were highly regarded masters living and
teaching outside the institutions, Zen's most
characteristic geniuses moved freely among the temples
and monasteries, and followed a highly prescribed
lifestyle. The strength and tradition of monastic life
provided the loom on which the spare, elegant, witty,
deadly serious, and humorous fabric of Zen could be
woven. Though it would be wrong to say monastic life
was essential to all Zen, it has been essential to a
great deal of the best of it so far. [Zen's Chinese
popoup of Bodhidharma Four Practices
Farong story
----end Ferguson -- - - - - -- - - ---Nine-Headed - - - -
. . . since the essence of Zen might well be what one
teacher called "the moment-by-moment awakening of
mind," there is little that may sensibly be said about
it without succumbing to that breathless, mysteryridden prose that drives so many sincere aspirants in
the other direction. [Nine-Headed Dragon River]
his "emptiness" was neither absence nor a void. . .
Like the empty mirror on which all things pass, leaving
no trace, this ku contains all forms and all phenomena,
being a symbol of the universal emphasis. Thus this
emptiness is also fullness, containing all forms and
phenomena. [Nine-Headed Dragon River]
"I do not know."
And with "I do not know." Bodhidharma launches Zen with
the supreme answer. As Peter Mathiessen observes, notknowing:
. . . echoes "vast emptiness," yet goes still deeper to
the unnameable source where there is noting-to-know,
were nothing exists outside the doing and being of this
present instant witout past and future. . . . Like
emptiness, this not-knowing is very close to us,
therefore hard to see. It is the source or essence of
our life, and of Zen practice. . [Nine-Headed Dragon
- - - ---end Nine-Headed - - - -
-----Mu Soeng Trust Mind --- - -- - 2g
His way was one that pointed and permeated; it did not
invade or
seek to control. In Chuang's pages we feel the
conviction that only
the self-discovered truth is the truth that can be
lived. His Ultimate was a course, a cosmic force. So
Chuang talked of this Tao, this road, this way of life—
this spontaneity that cannot be captured, only
fostered; this that cannot be labeled because it has no
name. [Trust In Mind]
He was, of. course, driven into the idiom of the
absurd. When one has expanded his consciousness—call it
satori, samdhi, enlightenment or mastery of the Tao—
one's thought enters the paraverbal. Then to
communicate with others who have not yet crossed that
bar requires parable, metaphor, satire, or nonsense.
The absurd becomes that third point to which both
consciousness can relate, and through which ideas can
be exchanged. Indirection is then seen as guidance.
[Trust In Mind]
"Buddho-Taoism" is a collaboration of . . . neo-Taoist
philosophers and Chinese Mahayana Buddhist monks, both
of the scholarly and the ascetic persuasion. The two
traditions of Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism stand in
contrast to Western philosophical traditions, which
have well-defined terms, the subject matter subdivided
and built up into connected whole . . . even before
Bodhidharma arrived in China, a ground had been
prepared in which Taoist and Buddhist ideas
collaborated with each other, mainly in opposition to
Confucian ideas, and found a healthy respect for each
other. [Trust In Mind]
The transplantation of Buddhism into China is one of
those puzzling events that have left historians
scrambling for categories of description. [Trust In
. . . an unmistakable preference for immediate,
intuitive knowledge, both of which were to be hallmarks
of Buddho-Taoism as it emerged in subsequent centuries,
and as it had been developing embryonically in
centuries prior to Sengchao. He was at ease with the
paradoxes created by wordplay that leaves the meaning
ambiguous but points to the truth that lies behind
words. This truth had to be experienced, not reasoned
out. [Trust in Mind]
Sengcan and the fledgling tradition of Chan were not
interested in establishing a "Truth"-with-a-capital-T
but rather in finding a template for living with
awareness and clarity. In that sense, they were
expressing the original message of the Buddha. The goal
of the mature Chan tradition is not to answer questions
but to dissolve the lust for or addiction to seeking
answers and to diminish suffering thereby. . . . [Trust
in Mind]
When Sengcan's poem and other Chan texts are using the
language of traditional Buddhism, they are placing
themselves within the doctrinal context of Mahayana
Buddhism; when they are using the language of paradox,
it is to place themselves within the free-wheeling
tradition of Zhuangzi's Taoism. [Trust in Mind]
Huineng reasserted the territory that was first
explored by Sengchao, and later articulated by Sengcan.
In Huineng's Platform Sutra (the foundational text for
the "new" Chan; the "old" Chan was, definitionally, the
Chan of Bodhidharma and was identified the with
Lankavatara Sutra as the primary text), we find the
fullest crossover yet of basic Chan and Taoist ideas:
the ordinary mind of man is deluded, and the practice
of no-mind (wu-shin) is considered sufficient for the
rectification of that deluded mind. Closely allied to
wu-hsin (no-mind) is wu-nien (no-thought), and when
combined with wu-wei (nondoing or non-action), we have,
within the literature of "new" Chan, a full-fledged
collaboration with Taoist ideas. [Trust in Mind]
----end Mu Soeng Trust Mind --- - -- - -------Wu Golden Age -----2g
If Buddhism is the father, Taoism is the mother of this
prodigious child. But there can be no denying that the
child looks more like the mother than the father. [The
Golden Age of Zen]
Whether this and other stories about Bodhidharma
possessed historical truth is far from certain. What is
certain is that the Bodhidharma legend was believed in
as a fact by the actual founders of the School of Zen
in the Tang dynasty, when it had already become a
living tradition. [The Golden Age of Zen]
This discourse is a gem of spiritual literature. It
shows that the author was in the grand tradition of
Buddhist writers . . . . But, profound as it is as a
piece of spiritual literature, it is certainly not Zen
at its most characteristic. We have here nothing of the
breathtaking abruptness, the blinding flashes, the
deafening shouts, the shocking outbursts, the
mystifying koans, the rocket-like soarings beyond the
sphere of reason, the tantalizing humor and
whimsicality, the unaccountable beatings, which were to
fill the pages of Zen literature as such. [The Golden
Age of Zen]
For Shenxiu and the Northern school, Buddhism can be
summed up by the doctrines of sila, prajna and dhyana
(moral discipline, wisdom and recollection and peace).
These represent the three stages of gradual
enlightenment: sila, the abstention from evil; prajna,
the pursuing of good; dhyana, the purification of one's
mind. [The Golden Age of Zen]
In this view, they are not so much stages of spiritual
life as streams flowing from the self nature as the
sole fountain of wisdom. Everything depends upon
awakening. The self-awakened will spontaneously avoid
all evil and pursue all good. He enjoys an ineffable
freedom and peace, and carries within him a living
fountain of wisdom.
The way of Huineng was, then, professedly opened for
men of the highest spiritual gifts. But taking mankind
as it is, one can not but admit that even "men of
Mahayana" are rare enough, to say nothing of "men of
the highest Vehicle." Onee wonders how many monks and
lay devotees who have claimed themselves to be members
of the southern school of instantaneous enlightenment
have in truth been men of the supreme vehicle as
envisaged by Huineng. [The Golden Age of Zen]
--- - - - - - -others - -
. . . in his orientation toward the immediate and
experiential perception of absolute truth, and reveals
itself in his preference for the paradox as the means
of expressing the inexpressible. [A History of Zen
The incident described in a story occurs in a
particular place at a particular time among a small
number of people, or in someone's imagination. But once
it is developed as a pointer to awakening, it can be
pondered by innumerable seekers of the Way for hundreds
of years. A poem that was originally scribbled in a
mountain hut in China can be recited daily in
monasteries all over East Asia. Thus a certain core of
Zen literature has entered what might be called the
collective consciousness of the tradition. Some of the
ancient sayings and writings collected in this book
have survived such a process. [Essential Zen]
Robert Aitken Roshi comments on the old stories in this
[In Zen] modern teachers who know what's what do not
treat the old stories as history or philosophy or
psychology or literature. They do not talk about the
old stories, but rather they present them as arcana
that require inquiry that is far more profound than
academic study or explanation—the very same kind of
inquiry that was demanded in the ancient interactions.
Koans are not riddles or riddle-like stories or
teaching devices. They are direct expressions of the
most profound, perennial facts, and deserve our
exacting attention. ???
While there was nothing specifically Zen in his
doctrine . . . the teaching of pi-kuan, wallcontemplation, was what made Bodhidharma the first
Ancestor of Zen Buddhism in China. [Essays in Zen
Buddhism, D. T. Suzuki]
. . . absolute mind, to be distinguished from an
empirical mind which is the subject of psychological
study. When it begins with a capital letter, it is the
ultimate reality on which the entire world of
individual objects depends for its value. [Manual of
Zen Buddhism, DTSuzuki]
. . . the ignorant and the simple minded, not knowing
that the world is what is seen of Mind itself, cling to
the multitudinous of external objects, cling to the
notions of being and non-being, oneness and otherness,
bothness and not-bothness, existence and non-existence,
eternity and non-eternity . [D.T. Suzuki, The
Lankavatara Sutra]
. . . [I]t is like those water bubbles in a rainfall
which have the appearance of crystal gems, and the
ignorant taking them for real crystal gems run after
them .... They are no more than water bubbles, they are
not gems, nor are they not-gems, because of their being
so comprehended [by one party] and not being so
comprehended [by another]. [D.T. Suzuki, The
Lankavatara Sutra]
Thus, wu-wei as "not forcing" is what we mean by going
with the grain, rolling with the punch, swimming with
the current, trimming sails to the wind, taking the
tide at its flood, and stooping to conquer.
Wu-wei is thus the life-style of one who follows the
Tao, and must be understood primarily as a form of
intelligence — that is of knowing the principles,
structures, and trends of human and natural affairs so
well that one uses the least amount of energy in
dealing with them. [The Way of Zen]
Farong’s Song of Mind "Wisdom from the Zen Classic Xin
Ming" - Translated by Master Sheng Yen
The Platform Sutra maintains that the nature of man is
from the outset pure, but that his purity has no form.
But by self-practice, by endeavoring for himself, man
can gain insight into this purity. Meditation, prajna,
true reality, purity, the original nature, self-nature,
the Buddha nature, all these terms, which are used
constantly throughout the sermon, indicate the same
undefined Absolute, which when seen and experienced by
the individual himself, constitutes enlightenment.
[Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch]
His teaching began with the goodness of human nature
and ended with the goodness of human nature. There is
no need of plowing or weeding: it was originally pure.
. . . He made light of "all the ink in the universe,"
and left no writing. ???
Different teachers dealt in different ways with the
practical implications of this teaching, and in
particular with the question of how to regard the
defilements of the mind in light of the Buddha-nature's
supposedly being intrinsically pure.
Shenxiu approached the problem from two angles. When
describing the practice from the outside, he stated
that the pure mind and the defiled mind, though
conjoined, were essentially separate, each with its own
intrinsic reality. Neither generated the other. Thus
the goal of the practice was to rid the mirror-like
pure mind of any impurities. When describing the
techniques used to rid the mind of its impurities,
however, he recommended that the meditator regard the
impurities as essentially unreal. In reality, some of
the practices he taught implied a sudden approach to
awakening; others a more gradual approach.
[The Buddhist Religion]