Monday, August 31, 2015



The last time we met there was a question about the variance between Western thought and Eastern thought. It had to do with the notion that the East is concerned with the self, whereas the West is concerned with something other than self. Today’s talk may offer no answer, but it may offer something to think about.

          The recorded history of Chinese Ch’an masters and their teachings goes as far back as 800 BC. Note that I said “recorded history.” In China, teachers of the meditative way—Ch’an or Taoism—were active much earlier than 800 BC. Many were known by word of mouth but most have no written history.

Some scholars argue Ch’an developed from the interaction between Buddhism and Taoism, while others insist that Ch’an had roots in yogic practices, specifically the total fixation of the mind.

When Buddhism came to China by way of Hinduism, it focused on the training of the individual human mind rather than on some form of spirituality that involved an object other than oneself. Ch’an looked upon rationality, logic, and spirituality as unreasonable and therefore beyond human understanding.

The Linji school of Ch’an was named after Linji Yixuan, a master who died in 866. It was prominent in China, spread to Japan, and influenced Korean Zen. In Japan, Ch’an became knowns as Rinzai Zen.

          Linji first studied under Master Huaang-po, but resented being hit with a stick, which was a common Buddhist practice in those days. It made him believe he himself was in some way at fault in his learning. So he chose a different teacher who taught that mind could not be sought by the mind because mind is the Buddha.

          Now that in itself is a fine piece of Zen illogicalness. It’s like the tail chasing the dog. What it means is you are already there, so stop chasing yourself and realize the fact.

Once Linji realized that, he was awakened.

          Disagreeable though the early stick-swatting was to Linji, it must have rubbed off on him. When he became master of his own school he often made use of the technique not as something sadistic but as a tool to jolt students into the present moment. He was also known for bellowing the word KHAT!

That is a loud, nonsensical sound aimed at rattling a student’s mind. At least for the moment the novice remains silent and unthinking. In Japanese Zen the word is KWATZ!

          Through such unconventional methods Linji sought to wake his students from their intellectual laziness. Yet, his means were a straight expression of his own awakening. In that way, he was not really trying to do much of anything at all.

            "As I see it, there isn't so much to do,” Linji said. “Just be ordinary. Put on your robes, eat your food, and pass the time doing nothing."

          That sounds very Taoist. As does another of his sayings: “You must not accept the misleading views of others. If you want to act, then act. Don't hesitate."

            Chief among Linji’s teachings was his notion of "the true man," who he insisted was free, undisturbed, and distinct from a puppet that is jerked around by strings manipulated by someone else.

          Ruth Fuller Sasaki, author of the book The Record of Linji, said a master may fall silent, shout, beat, or walk away from an inquiring student. The teacher must undercut all forms of grasping in the student's mind—grasping at form, feelings, opinions, stillness, energy conditions, and supersensible states. All are conditioned, and all are far from real awakening.

You have probably heard about or read about Wu wei. It’s an important concept in Taoism that literally means non-action or non-doing. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu explains that beings that are in harmony with the Tao behave in a completely natural, uncontrived way.

Remember the story of the Taoist who fell in the river and rather than try to save himself let the current carry him wherever it would.

According to Lao Tzu, the goal of practice for the human being is the attainment of this way of behaving. Wu wei is not withdrawal but rather activity in harmony with the ever-changing, ever-unchanging way of all life.              

Linji  had to cut through all the misapprehensions and superstitions his disciples brought him, and most certainly their understanding of Buddhism that came from vague conceptions and not liberation itself.

           Linji didn't hide the futility of trying to deliver that which can only be self-generated. As with Gautama Buddha himself, his intention was to help the student wake up, not to create new doctrine or debate old theory.

          In one of his gentler moments, Linji told his students, “You can’t stop your mind from racing around everywhere, seeking something. You must turn your light around and shine it on yourself, not go seeking somewhere or someone else.”         

            Getting back to where we started, there are no wonders in Buddhism. In Eastern thinking the miracle is not to walk on water, the miracle is to walk on earth.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Three Stories


Like most traditions and ideals, Zen is loaded with stories that illustrate a certain point. Here are three such tales.


Zen Story 1: The Pointer

A Zen master had a favorite dog that loved an evening romp. The master would throw a stick, and the dog would bound ahead to fetch it, then run back, wag its tail, and wait for the next game.

One evening, the roshi invited one of his brightest students to join him.  The novice was an intelligent pupil, but he was often troubled by the contradictions in Zen teachings.

 "You must understand," said the teacher, "that words are only guideposts. Never let words or symbols get in the way of truth.”

With that the teacher called his dog.

"Fetch me the moon," the master said to the dog, as he pointed to the full moon.

The dog sat still.

 "Where is my dog looking?" the teacher asked the pupil.

 "He's staring at your finger," the monk said.

"Exactly,” the master said. “Don't be like the dog. Don't confuse the pointing finger with the thing being pointed at. All Zen words are only guideposts. Every person must fight his way through words to discover his own truth."

Zen Story 2: Flow like a Stream

A young martial arts student was being coached by a famous master. One day the master was watching a practice session in the courtyard. He realized that the presence of the other students was interfering with the young man's attempts to concentrate and perfect his technique.

The master went up and tapped the lad on a shoulder.

"What's the problem?" he asked.

"I don't know,” the student said. "No matter how much I try, I am unable to concentrate enough to execute the moves properly.”

The teacher smiled. "Before you can master technique, you must understand harmony. Come with me, I will explain,” he replied.

The two of them left the courtyard and walked some distance until they came upon a stream. The master stood silently for several moments, then he spoke.

"Look at the water," he said. "There are rocks in its way. Does it slam into them out of frustration? It simply flows over and around them and moves on. Be like the water and you will know what harmony is."

The young man took the master's advice to heart. Soon, he was barely noticing the other students. Nothing could come in his way of executing the perfect moves.

Zen Story 3: No Objective

Once there was a monk who rigorously kept the Buddhist principles. He was proud of his detachment from the world. One evening when he was out walking he stepped on something. It made a squishing sound, and the monk imagined he had stepped on an egg-bearing frog. This caused him no end of sorrow, in view of the precept against taking life, and when he finally went to sleep that night he dreamed that hundreds of frogs came demanding his death.

The monk was terribly upset, but when morning arrived he discovered that what he stepped on was an overripe eggplant. At that moment his feeling of uncertainty stopped, and he realized the meaning of the saying that "there is no world undisturbed by emotion."