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328. The nature of faith in Zen

In his practice instructions, Master Hongzhi advises us to practice with the faith that all beings are our ancestors. At least, that’s what we would take his instructions as meaning. 

What’s important to understand, with his instructions and those of all the other masters, is that they are not using representational language. They’re using descriptive language: they are not telling us how the world is or how it should be; or what practice is, or what practice should be, but rather, they’re describing what their world is and what their practice is. How it is for them.

Because all these masters are practising and existing within our common humanity, we can practice with the faith that what Hongzhi is saying is a true experience for him and so, with the faith that it can be a true experience for us. And, in a sense, faith makes it so.

The connection between expression and faith is different from what we might ordinarily imagine. Expression is not stating something universal, something out there which is ‘true’, but it is expressing how it is with this person. And through the expression of this person, we can come to understand that what this person is experiencing, I, too, can experience. Whether the jewel is endarkened or not, I can have faith that it is there.

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326. Bodhidharma’s ‘Wall Contemplation’

In Zen legend, Bodhidharma arrived in China from India, had his encounter with the Emperor and then went to Shaolin temple where he sat facing a wall for nine years. There’s pictures of this everywhere, showing Bodhidharma with dramatically bulging eyes.

When we sit facing the wall, we’re evoking that. 

The Chinese phrase which is rendered as, ‘wall contemplation’, is ‘pi-kuan’. Classical Chinese is notoriously terse. The expression means simply something like, ‘wall gazing’. It doesn’t say who’s doing the gazing – if it’s a person gazing at a wall or if it’s the wall gazing, or something else. The phrase is original to Bodhidharma.

Because of the pictorial representation, we think, without inquiring further, that the phrase simply means that Bodhidharma practised zazen facing the wall. Except, that isn’t really an explanation at all.

Given that the wall is plainly not the object of meditation, the phrase, I think, only makes sense when we interpret it as meaning that when we are sitting, we are like a wall gazing onto the world.

What does that suggest? Firstly, that the wall, like a tree, or a mountain, is rooted in the being of all things. It’s non-dual. Secondly, that the wall doesn’t differentiate. So the wall will see all beings, in all states, with the same ‘gaze’. 

In that sense, the wall is like a stone mirror. If we look at it in that way, then we can see a connection between this idea of wall gazing and the Alaya consciousness that we encounter in Yogacara. Bodhidharma was known for bequeathing to his successor the Lankavatara sutra, which is a Yogacara sutra.

The phrase is evocative and open-ended. We should approach it as we should approach all the teachings; not as a ‘puzzle’ to be solved and then never returned to, but like a person. For all the sutras, for all the teachings, it is like we’re encountering a person, who is not exhausted by definition and classification but who, from moment to moment, offers the opportunity of a living exchange about practice, which can change us, and change them.

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Master Hongzhi’s Practice instructions. Number 9: The Misunderstanding of Many Lifetimes

Emptiness is without characteristics. Illumination has no emotional afflictions.’

With piercing, quietly profound radiance, it mysteriously eliminates all scars.  Thus,one can know one; thus the self is completed. We all have the clear, wondrously bright field from the beginning. Many lifetimes of misunderstanding come only from distrust, hindrance and screens of confusion that we create in a scenario of isolation. With boundless wisdom journey beyond this, forgetting accomplishments. Straightforwardly abandon stratagems and take on responsibility. Having turned yourself around, accepting your situation, if you set foot on the path, spiritual energy will marvously transport you. Contact phenomena will total sincerity. Not a single atom of dust is outside yourself.’

For practice the most important thing is faith. Not belief, faith.

Specifically, faith in two things.

Firstly that when we read descriptions of practice such as this, no matter how apparently fantastical they first appear, we should understand them as a sincere attempt by a practitioner, a practitioner like ourselves, to express their actual experience.

Second, that the actual experience that this practitioner has had is experience which is  also available to us. What we should not do is make the language of description literal. We should not for instance, think that we must experience the bright field that Master Hongzhi talks about and if we can’t experience that, our practice is worth nothing.

We need to understand that the experience that Master Hongzhi and other practitioners write about in their own way is available to everyone, but the experience of each person will be different, and hence the expression. Master Hongzhi  experienced a bright field. Other  people might experience a profound connectedness, or a great, luminous silence, or a sense of a dynamic interconnected body. If you wait impatiently for the bright field to appear, you will remain in darkness forever.

We are always striving to express our experience in language, but we must understand that our language and the language of all our teachers is descriptive language, and hence, to a greater or lesser extent, unique. It is not telling us  what we should experience. Each experience is another brushstroke in creation.

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277. The Mind Verses Competition

One of the founding myths of the Zen School in China is the Mind Verses Competition between Shen-xui and Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch. All the subsequent Zen figures–Baso, Sekito, Rinzai, Joshu, everyone–trace their lineage through him.

In the story, which is sometimes known as the mind verses competition, the Fifth Patriarch, Hung-jen asks his monks to write a verse to demonstrate their understanding. His senior disciple,Shen-xui is the only one who responds. He composes a verse which reads: 

The body is the Bodhi tree

The mind a bright mirror’s stand

Always polish assiduously 

So that dust does not gather

In the story Hui-neng was resident in the monastery at the time, not as a monk but as a labourer, and he was illiterate. He asked someone to explain the verse to him and then asked someone to write his reply, which went as follows. 

Bodhi originally has no tree

Nor the mirror a stand

The Buddha nature is always clear and bright

Where is there room for dust?

When the Fifth Patriarch heard Hui-neng’s verse, he secretly gave him the transmission, making him the Sixth Patriarch rather than Shen-xui, and Hui-neng then clandestinely left the monastery in the dead of the night.

The problem with the story is that it is completely made up. All those people existed, both would have been at Hung-jen’s monastery at some time,  but they certainly weren’t there together.

Shen-xui was a very prominent meditation teacher at the end of the Seventh century, and had the patronage of Empress Wu.

Hui neng is a manufactured person. There was someone of that name, that much we know, but we also know that everything attributed to him is created later, primarily in ‘The Platform Sutra,’which contains these verses. 

The interpretation given to these two verses over time was that Shen-xui’s perspective was deficient because it allegedly suggested a gradualistic model of practice: if we practice assiduously enough,we get the mirror.The criticism that Hui neng made is that practice serves no purpose unless we have a primary insight into emptiness. If we don’t have that insight we can practice as long and as hard as we like, to no effect

Let’s look at Shen-xui’s poem.

The bodhi tree is the tree under which the Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment. It’s a special type of Fig tree, with heart shaped leaves which lives for a very long time. I’ll talk more about it another time, but for our purposes, that’s not the part of the poem which is criticised, it’s the remainder which is accused of fostering a gradualistic approach. 

However, Shen-xui does not say that the personal mind is the mirror. He says that the mind is the mirror’s stand. 

To understand what that means you need to know that in the China of that period, mirrors were made of metal, so required to be polished consistently to retain their powers of reflection. And they were also round, so if they didn’t have a stand, they were likely to just roll away.

So the metaphor of the mind being the mirror’s  stand is quite a subtle metaphor. It’s clearly not saying that through practice I somehow attain enlightenment, but rather that it is the effort of my whole being, my body and my mind, which enables the mirror, which is not mine to manifest here. The mirror is not my personal possession, it is not something which I ever attain. 

So the criticism that is made of Shen-xui isn’t fair. And we don’t know if he even wrote the poem. But whether he did or not, I’ll comment on it further.

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Master Hongzhi’s Practice Instructions; Number 28

‘All Beings Are Your Ancestors’

‘Fully appreciate the emptiness of all dharmas. Then all minds are free and all dusts vanish, and the original brilliance shining everywhere. Transforming according to circumstances, meet all beings as your ancestors. Subtly illuminate all conditions, magnanimous beyond all duality, clear and desireless the wind in the pines and the moon in the water are content in their elements. Essentially you exist inside emptiness and have the capacity to respond outwardly without being captured, like spring blossoming, like a mirror reflecting forms, So Hongzhi (or Wanshi in Japanese) was an exceptional Soto zen master, active round about 1130 -1150 in Song dynasty China. He expresses himself in these wonderful, rich poetic terms, but they contain a trap for us, that trap is essentially that we imagine he is using symbolic language. So when he refers to moon we might say- he’s meaning enlightenment. When he refers to wind – he might mean delusion, or possibly interdependence. When he is referring to the pines – who knows maybe a practitioner, but it will be something. And the problem with us reading the Chinese masters that way is

that we don’t see what they are trying to do, which is essentially an act of description. Description through evoking a kind of feeling in us.

In his recent book on Hongzhi ‘Cultivating the Empty Field – The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi’

Taigen Dan Leighton does us a wonderful service, both in bringing this teacher to greater attention but also in setting the context and in setting the background of his teaching.

Please investigate this great master.

Finally Dan Leighton’s wonderful website – Ancient Dragon.org- also has a really helpful article which is called ‘Hongzhi, Dogen and the background to Shikantaza’ which really helps to establish the connection between Hongzhi and Dogen and hence illuminates a whole aspect of Dogen who I think all to often is seen as an ahistorical character.

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Book of Serenity, Case 36: Master Ma Is Unwell

Kusen Collaboration Book of Serenity Case 36, artwork by Blair Thomson

The Case: One day, Master Ma’s personal attendant asked him, “How is the master these days?”

Master Ma answered, “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.”

This case is also Case 3 in the Blue Cliff Record.

Master Ma is Mazu or Baso, who along with Sekito, is one of the great masters of 8th Century Chinese Zen. The reference to “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha” comes from the Buddha Names Sutra, where Sun Face Buddha is said to have a lifespan of 1800 years, and Moon Face Buddha has a lifespan of only one day and one night. Baso would die shortly after this exchange.

On the face of it, Baso is talking about two aspects of his experience, and of all our experience, namely that from one perspective we experience our lives as particular and  karmic, limited in place and time. And from the other, we experience ourselves as part of the great body of all being, unlimited, universal. Rather like we may see a particular stitch on cloth as being, on the one hand, just that particular stitch, and on the other hand, part of the fabric of great being, so we can see our lives in the same way.

It seems to me that we can also look at the answer in another way, which is pointing out two aspects of experiencing non-duality. 

When we experience things in sunlight, everything in this vast world is illuminated, except for the sunlight, which is invisible. We see the manifold vibrant things of the world, but the light of the Self is invisible. 

In moonlight, by contrast, we see all the things on which moonlight shines as being somehow part of the moonlight. They lose their distinctiveness and their separateness and they all become part of the moonlight.

Similarly, I think when we are in Zazen, sometimes the Self drops away and we’re aware of this vast dynamic world, this vast body of all-being. And other times, our experience is quite different. It’s quite soft and intimate, particular in both place and time. It’s as if the whole of existence is taken within the soft light of the non-egoic Self and the world, as it were, disappears.

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256. You are nothing like me

Master Rinzai said that there is a true person who is always coming and going through our face.

Rinzai is, in his own vivid and embodied words, talking about Buddha nature, non duality and so on. And whether this dart of his own words finds a gap in the armour of the Self for you, who knows? But either way, his authentic and heartfelt expression is this true person.

Buddhism has no interest in how the world is constructed. It is not science. It is not psychology. It is not religion.

Its interest in truth is in the truth of you as a human being: who you are, what you can be, and how you can express yourself, and your enfoldment within this greater being of all things. The you that is like a little bird singing.

I am nothing like my teacher and you are nothing like me – because the function of a teacher isn’t to make you like them but to make you like you, because – not you but this ‘you’- is the true person.

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250. Wall Gazing

Why do we sit facing the wall?

We can say that we’re following Bodhidharma who, after his encounter with The Chinese Emperor, went to Shaolin Temple and “sat facing the wall” for 9 years.

Classical Chinese is very terse. The characters simply say “ wall gazing”. This can certainly mean gazing at the wall, or, slightly less literally, facing the wall, but they can also mean, amongst other possibilities, gazing like the wall.

And how does a wall “gaze”? Steadfastly and with non discrimination, allowing all things to be, maintaining the room of the world.

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231. Dahui

Dahui, the 12th Century Chinese Master, said that Soto practitioners stagnated in Emptiness. What he meant by that was to say that our tradition over emphasised tranquillity and lacked insight, wisdom. It’s a criticism which was repeated by his Rinzai successors, most famously by Hakuin.

Is the criticism fair?

Certainly, in response to it, there has been a sporadic but persistent response within our tradition which attempts to create an atmosphere of dramatic urgency, which no doubt does curtail tranquillity, but for what benefit? We are earnestly told that we must practice zazen as if our life depended on it. Does it? Isn’t the truth that our life hangs by an infinity of single threads, yet we do not fall?

Further, we are periodically given false instructions to breathe in a prescribed way to develop power in our hara, lifted straight from Rinzai, as if that could be done with a non gaining mind.

Dahui’s criticism of these kind of practitioners is too mild. It’s not even drama. People who teach in this way are the rear end of a pantomime horse.

But the criticism generally is not fair.

This body is not the possession of the self. The self appears and disappears within this body. The breath, liberated from the grip and pull of the self, can express itself fully. Likewise all things. Likewise, all things.

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Blue Cliff Record, Case 42 (adapted)

The Case:

When Layman Pang left Yao Shan’s monastery, the Abbot ordered ten of his senior monks to accompany him to the temple gate. As they approached the gate, snow started falling. Layman Pang said, “These are good snowflakes. They only fall here.”

One of the monks asked him, “Where do they fall?”

Layman Pang replied, “Even though you are a zen monk, the King of Death won’t let you go”

Commentary:

In Suchness, it is not that we disappear. Rather, boundaries disappear. Separation disappears. Without erasing difference, all things participate in the wholeness of this moment.

The King of Death appears in many forms. If it were just one form, we could see him easily. In this case, the monk takes Layman Pang’s simple statement of wonder and gratitude – the snowflakes do not fall on the monastery, they do not fall on the temple gate, they fall here – and misunderstands it, as a game, as an invitation to dharma combat, or something similar.

It is not just the snowflakes, obviously. Everything is falling and rising here, and the mind which places this here within a greater everywhere does so from a dream.