Monday, January 21, 2013


You may recall the name Hengchuan. He was one of the Chinese Zen masters who endured through the thirteenth century when Mongols overran most of Asia. Hengchuan’s discourse, “Tied and Bound by the Intellect,” may be centuries old but it is as germane today as it was seven hundred years ago.  

            “Tied and Bound by the Intellect,”

A good title, don’t you think? To phrase it another way, in Zen if you rely on brain power you are likely to be immobilized.

My talk is taken from Zen under the Gun, a translation by J.C. Cleary.

            One day Hengchuan told his monks he is often asked to give public talks in the hopes that such talks will become popular with Zen adherents. The request was sincere, and it had a noble purpose.

But Hengchuan didn’t say, “Okay,” and let it go at that.

            “This affair is not a matter of words,” Hengchuan began. He mentioned three earlier masters whose teaching methods involved holding up a stick, or raising a finger, or thumping the ground.

What was the point of such physical weirdness he asked?

            And now I ask, what do you think was the purpose of these odd goings-on?

            Probably those old masters had learned from experience that a quick kick in the pants made more of an impression that a string of unfathomable words.

            Hengchuan reminded his apprentices that whether he spoke or not, every one of them had the potential to become realized.

That is, what is commonly called enlightenment is available to any person who has an open mind.

            But, he cautioned, one must avoid forming intellectual understandings. That means one must guard against giving in to rationality, logical, and scholarly shortcuts that are not really time savers but wandering paths that lead deep into the woods but go nowhere.

To quote Hengchuan, “You are obstructed by light when it is light and by darkness when it is dark. . . . With words you are obstructed by words.”

            Elsewhere, he warned, “Brothers, do not make collections of words.”

            You may remember the question a monk asked of a master why Bodhidharma came to China from India.

The answer was not because the patriarch preferred Chinese food.

When the monk hesitated, the master swatted him and said that not even three people have the same opinion because three people cannot agree, or three hundred, or five hundred.

            Long winded discussions and debates lead nowhere and are a waste of time.

            “You must forget intellectual knowledge,” Hengchuan said, “and end maneuvers and tricks.”

            He termed the Zen community a deserted ruin. Why? Because some so-called teachers have been eggheads. They declare that a certain koan is helpful and another koan is not. They think that mind or factuality is a principle of Buddhism. They pontificate dogmatically.

            And being officious is their downfall. They become stagnant.

            Another type of misguided teacher likes to create strange sayings, or manufacture a type of psycho babble. They think speaking in tongues will give the impression they are intellectually superior to those who are willing to listen. All it does is create a pocket of brown-nose followers who hang on every word and recycle it as their own awakened wisdom.

            I could wind this up by saying “Do this,” or “Don’t do that.” But I would sound like a pious preacher laying down rules for salvation.

            Zen may have some thought-provoking sayings, but it has no rules.

            Know yourself.

Think for yourself.

It’s as simple as that.


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