rivers into islands

rivers into islands

Friday, July 24, 2015

Zen Way

AS A WAY, “ZEN” could reference sitting, koan, sutra collections, art/lifestyle aesthetic—many popular things. 

What to do?  Which way/ways/methods?  If a way is akin to Zen Buddhism rather than pop-culture,
Zazen only?
Sutra & Koan & zazen?
No zazen?
Koan or no koan, or one koan, or many koans?

Deliberation & Controversy

A comparison of critiques by selected Zen Buddhist reformists as sketched in Crazy Clouds reveals sharply different directives, often in conflict:

Hakuin maintained that it was not always absolutely necessary to sit in meditation in a quiet place, but that it was essential to carry the koan about in one’s consciousness in all situations—active or static, noisy or quiet.  This state of nonconceptual awareness

Bankei dismissed saddling oneself with a koan to provoke something akin to Hakuin’s greatly encouraged state of “Great Doubt.” Bankei suggested that the koans were ossified teachings of live moments, and that the koans might be abstractive in the contemporary moment and therefore not fit and possibly even misdirect.  Even more than Hakuin’s allowance for not sitting in zazen, Bankei was oriented more toward listening, for example, to birds (e.g., The nightingale is singing: the highest Zen) rather than sitting.

Bassui encouraged looking at koans, but not until one gazed into one own nature, and unlike Hakuin was critical of long-term koan study of various types of koans, with koans being no more than “fingers pointing toward the moon, but not the moon itself.”

Dogen is not included in the Crazy Cloud biographical sketches but is an example of a major reformist who would challenge any consideration of movement beyond zazen as the primary way of Zen with the point of Zen study being the shedding of body and mind.  Still, Dogen’s writings are studied and they are full of references to Chinese k’an-hua or gong-an, and his writings are deep Japanese koans in and of themselves [e.g., Shobogenzo]


Zen is not sitting, koan, sutra, precepts.  Zen is directly related to the sudden awakening experience of Siddhartha Gautama.  Zen is not strictly Buddhist, but has been remarkably “housed” in the Zen Buddhist sect.  The experience of Siddhartha was not the first human experience of awakening to an undivided fundamental reality, wherein “I” and “other” are fundamentally identical though on a phenomenal level distinct.

Koans, zazen, sutra do focus attention away from ruminating thoughts, (observing them appear and disappear that reveals their emptiness), then what?   To venture here, Bassui admonishes, You must advance beyond the stage where your reason is of any avail.

One does Zen for a reason. If the physical reality of a person comes and goes like thought and everything a person experiences, dropping this “you,” then what appears?  This is essentially the essence of the reason.

This effort to quiet and calm and use methods such as koan and zazen and sutra study is driven by a question, “What appears?  Hakuin says a question is unavoidably there and one should keep it day and night, and it is also true as Bankei suggests that saddling oneself with one or many questions can be potentially misdirecting.  Perhaps most effective, whenever the question appears, there is a movement toward answering—doing—rather than just keeping the question.  And so, sitting into zazen, for example, can be an answer of sorts, a response to a question.  By stilling, the impermanent coming and going of thoughts leads to an “answer” of less attachment to them as fundamental reality.

So lots of zazen, sutra, koan? Or one or the other? 

The ongoing reformation of Zen practice is full of controversy and deliberation.  Much of the voluminous written record of Zen consists of critiques of Zen “exercise,” generation after generation, rather than clarification of the core essence.

In the Sandhinirmocana-sutra, Siddhartha reportedly stated,
The ultimate truth cannot be expressed in words….has no representation
….transcends all thought and deliberation.  The ultimate truth of which I 
speak puts an end to all controversy,whereas thought and deliberation only 
operate in the realm of controversy. [Zen Essence, bold mine]

Foyan suggests, “There is not much to Buddhism—it just requires getting to the essential.”

to contemplate emptiness and enter concentration, is all in
 the province of contrivance—and if you go on seeking externals,
you get further and further estranged. [Mazu]

You are busy every day claiming to study Zen, learn the Way, and interpret 
Buddhism, but this alienates you even further.  It is just chasing sound and 
form.  When will you ever stop? [Dazhu]

And the essential?

In Buddhism, the question goes back to where it all begins, suddenly:

What Does Siddhartha See? 

Siddhartha sees something profound, and it is not just suffering as attachment to thoughts and experiences that leads to psychological relief and physiological calmness.  His sudden experience resolves the suffering of not realizing fundamental nature that transcends psychological self and even culture, including “Zen.” Foyan suggests that there is no objective world and Yuanwu suggests that there are no parameters.

Siddhartha brings a question and experiences something that is NOT what anyone expects to discover.  Siddhartha was always making “I,” but unexpectedly experienced “what you see when you are not making you”—The all-embracing mind that does not come into existence with the body or die with the body’s destruction, yet suffuses every act of seeing, hearing, smelling, speaking, moving.” [Crazy Clouds, in discussing Bassui]

How much zazen or koan study or none of this or precepts or no precepts is really not the heart-place to dwell:

It is essentially direct experience from a basic query—perhaps a phrase from a Buddhist sutra such as Dwelling nowhere, bring forth that mind or a non-Buddhist one like Bassui first asked, “What is my own mind?” or later and less of a “you-oriented” query, Who is the master of hearing?

Dwelling nowhere, mind can’t come from you,

Then perhaps the clack of a stone, a chirp, spilled water, the flash of a sparrow’s wing, a black crow on winter ice, or a small phrase of sutra,

Like Hui-neng, or numerous people even before Siddhartha and outside of Buddhism, suddenly awake, nothing special, inherent.

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