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Tag: Red Pine

The Practice of Solitude

by tendo zenji

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Religious practice in America is essentially, I’d argue primarily,  a social endeavor.  Contemplative practices in contrast is a solitary practice. Even when you are siting shoulder to shoulder in the zendo, you are sitting alone.  This tension between an essentially solitary practice and the American social club model pervades Zen centers.  This emphasis on the group is so pervasive that it is common to encounter those that can only sit in the zendo, who are not able (or willing) to sit on their own. Considering that the essential practices are inherently solitary that orientation severely compromises ones practice. 

Beyond though simply turning inward in our practice, being solitary, there is the practice of Solitude. This is an absolute core practice in my view and one well worth pursuing. In this talk we will contemplate this practice and it’s pursuit.

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Throughout Chinese history, there have always been people who preferred to spend their  lives in the mountains, getting by on less, sleeping under thatch, wearing old clothes,  working the higher slopes, not talking much, writing even less—maybe a few poems,  a recipe or two. Out of touch with the times but not with the seasons, they cultivated  roots of the spirit, trading flatland dust for mountain mist. Distant and insignificant,  they were the most respected men and women in the world’s oldest society.  

No explanation has ever been offered or demanded for the admiration the Chinese have had for hermits. Hermits were simply there: beyond city walls, in the mountains, lone columns of smoke after a snowfall. As far back as records go, there were always hermits in China.
– Bill ‘Red Pine’ Porter , Road to Heaven, p. 12

In Road to Heaven Red Pine encounters more Taoists than Ch’an monks and while their approach and orientation is different they come from the same place. They are rooted in the cosmology that has informed Chinese religious practice for thousands of years. Before Buddhism before Taosim this view of reality led some to look inward, to commit completely to understanding. to isolate themselves in mountains

This cosmology as dwelling-place provided the context for virtually all poetic thinking in ancient China. Indeed, it was central to all Chinese culture, for wilderness has constituted the very terms of self-cultivation throughout the centuries in China. This is most clearly seen in the arts, which were nothing less than spiritual disciplines: calligraphers, poets, and painters aspired to create with the selfless spontaneity of a natural force, and the elements out of which they crafted their artistic visions were primarily aspects of wilderness. It can also be seen, for instance, in the way Chinese intellectuals would sip wine as a way of clarifying awareness of the ten thousand things by dissolving the separation between subject and object, or tea as a way of heightening that awareness, practices that ideally took place outdoors or in an architectural space that was a kind of eye-space, its open walls creating an emptiness that contained the world around it. There is a host of other examples, such as the ideal of living as a recluse among the mountains, or the widespread practice of traveling in areas of particular natural beauty, which generated an extensive travel literature. And as we shall see, meditation was widely practiced as perhaps the most fundamental form of belonging to China’s wilderness cosmology.

David Hinton in Mountain Home

Solitary practice v. Solitude

Sitting on ones own, individual sitting is an essential practice, one that all followers of the way to cultivate. Ultimately we are always sitting on our own.  But solitude is a practice of letting go, of abandoning the outside world and turning inward to our Original Nature.   Consider this passage from Krishnamurti:

J. Krishnamurti On Loneliness – the issue of escape.

“Have you ever tried to be alone? When you do try, you will feel how extraordinarily difficult it is and how extraordinarily intelligent we must be to be alone, because the mind will not let us be alone. The mind becomes restless, it busies itself with escapes, so what are we doing? We are trying to fill this extraordinary void with the known. We discover how to be active, how to be social; we know how to study, how to turn on the radio. We are filling that thing which we do not know with the things we know. We try to fill that emptiness with various kinds of knowledge, relationship or things. Is that not so? That is our process, that is our existence. Now when you realize what you are doing, do you still think you can fill that void? You have tried every means of filling this void of loneliness. Have you succeeded in filling it? You have tried cinemas and you did not succeed and therefore you go after your gurus and your books or you become very active socially. Have you succeeded in filling it or have you merely covered it up? If you “have merely covered it up, it is still there; therefore it will come back. If you are able to escape altogether then you are locked up in an asylum or you become very, very dull. That is what is happening in the world.

Can this emptiness, this void, be filled? If not, can we run away from it, escape from it? If we have experienced and found one escape to be of no value, are not all other escapes therefore of no value? It does not matter whether you fill the emptiness with this or with that. So-called meditation is also an escape. It does not matter much that you change your way of escape.

How then will you find what to do about this loneliness? You can only find what to do when you have stopped escaping. Is that not so? When you are willing to face what is – which means you must not turn on the radio, which means you must turn your back to civilization – then that loneliness comes to an end, because it is completely transformed. It is no longer loneliness. If you understand what is then what is is the real. Because the “mind is continuously avoiding, escaping, refusing to see what is it creates its own hindrances. Because we have so many hindrances that are preventing us from seeing, we do not understand what is and therefore we are getting away from reality; all these hindrances have been created by the mind in order not to see what is. To see what is not only requires a great deal of capacity and awareness of action but it also means turning your back on everything that you have built up, your bank account, your name and everything that we call civilization. When you see what is, you will find how loneliness is transformed. ”

-Excerpt From On Loneliness by J. Krishnamurti in First and Last Freedom.

It is this perspective that is the practice of solitude. You aren’t lonely in true solitude, because there is no self to be lonely there is only what is. The issue of escape here is also worth noting. In Krishnamurti’s view all activities that we undertake are undertaken by the self and thus are self-defeating. Ch’an of course acknowledges this, notes that all of our practice, even mediation, is upaya, a skillful use of the self to get past the self.  Krishnamurti is far more radical, simply telling us to see what is.

This shows us the way to the practice of solitude: letting go of our distractions, our escapes. Turning our back on civilization. 

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The Practice of Solitude

How then do we practice this? In general there is no guidebook, no practice program..  In general there are more warnings, than guidelines.  There are concerns of escape, issues of arrogance, of not coming down from the mountain, of eschewing our great vow. In essence the practice is simply a letting go of everything. It doesn’t have to be forever, it can be for one day every so often. Spend the day in solitude.  Spend a week in solitude. Spend a lifetime in solitude.

So we turn to examples, which is so often what the practice has to offer. The Buddhas and the patriarchs are examples of those far along the path. The icon of the buddha reminds us that this is possible.  The Chinese hermit-monks are exemplary in showing, not telling us this path.  The great documentary Amongst White Clouds,  is an apt demonstration.

“They turn their backs on comforts and conveniences and entertainment. To return to something more basic. A calm and peace they trust lays at the true heart of human nature.” – narrator

“The key to this is sitting meditation. After sitting then go to bed. Wake in the morning and sit some more. Most of the hermits already understand the practice methods and they don’t make mistakes. If you have this foundation then you can live in the mountains. But you must understand the practice. If you don’t understand, in the mountains, you’l go astray and that’s nothing but torture. Just torture.”

The filmmaker and narrator of this documentary is a practitioner himself who came to the practice through very romantic ideals common in the young. He had genuine questions and was serious as well as being a talented filmmaker.  He could see the orientation of these recluses even if his understanding of what drew them there was limited.

This is followed by an excerpt from a talk that the narrators teacher gives on mountain practice.  He talks of having had a heated bed when he first came to the mountains but that it is unnecessary. In the quoted text he notes that there is preparation one has to have to undertake this practice.  It is arduous and demanding and is not a romantic jaunt into the mountains. It isn’t “glamping”.

Narration:

“What wisdom is there in solitude? What changes in a person living so close to birth and death in nature? Do I feel myself in this?Are we somehow different from this old tree? Dying to be reborn? This life, this struggle, but something in this nature, something in us all. A calm and clarity in the face of change and uncertainty.”

“’Ten thousand things, all in this breath…’ why are people in this world so busy? just for this one breath. They say, “busy, busy, mine mine…”, busy a whole lifetime for “Me”. When this breath is cut off you let go of the whole universe. Why not let go from the start?”

The second quote here has always struck me from when I first watched this documentary over a decade ago.  This really is the essence of the practice in a few sentences.  The documentary is filled with wisdom from this recluses and is well worth spending time with.

Attachment to solitude

Since like some many Ch’an practices, there isn’t so much a detailed description, or a set of guidelines for the practice of solitude, what we mostly find is an orientation and then a discussion of the pitfalls that one can encounter. In the previous section, quote from Amongst White Clouds, the recluses noted the issues of coming to this practice before one is ready.  In the biography of the Japanese monk Bassui we see this underscored.

Bassui

There was a monk from Bassiu’s hometown by the name of Tokukei Jisha who had cut himself off from the world, retiring to the mountains, practicing religious austerities for many years. Hearing of this monk, Bassui decided to pay him a visit.”

– Bassui Tokusho, Mud and Water p. 4

Tokukei became a mentor, friend and teacher of Bassui and is a classic example of the hermit tradition in Japan. When he first visits him he asks Bassui why his head is shaved (indicating he is a monk) but he doesn’t wear robes. Bassui at this point really eschewed formal practice and all its trappings. Tokukei could see his immaturity and while they practiced together he said he needed to resolve the great matter and to have it sealed by an awakened master.

Bassui went to see Fukuan Sōki, of Hōunji Temple in Hitachi province, a noted Zen master who had studied in China. Fukuan had a following that numbered about two thousand. Bassui, unimpressed with Fukuan, returned to his hometown and went to see his friend Tokukei. He told Tokukei that he had not got on well with Fukuan and was planning to practice by himself in some isolated mountain retreat. Tokukei, having spent over twenty years practicing austerities in seclusion, had developed a great deal of pride in his practice. This pride became the cause of much of his pain and suffering. He warned Bassui of the dangers of this kind of seclusion before fully understanding “the great matter” or receiving the transmission from a true teacher. Though Bassui had received verification from Kōzan, he gave up the idea of secluding himself in the mountains in accord with his friend’s advice and instead spent that year in a summer and winter training sesshin with Tokukei.

– Bassui Tokusho, Mud and Water p. 5 and 6

Here we can see Tokukei outline these pitfalls of these practices.  Just like the recluse from Amongst White Clouds who said that being in the mountains before one is ready is “torture,” Tokukei is warning that if one does make it as a recluse this can lead to pride and arrogance. This he said leads to pain and suffering.  Solitude as a practice can be explored and be very fruitful in short stints but to undertake it long term, you need to be prepared.

It was around this time that Bassui built his first hermitage in Nanasawa in his home province, Sagami. Tokukei came to visit him there, and this time he seemed pleased with Bassui’s decision to retire to a hermitage to continue his practice. He seemed to be telling Bassui that since he now had met both requirements—having clarified the Way and having received verification from a true teacher—he was ready to undertake this kind of practice.

– Bassui Tokusho, Mud and Water p. 7

Bassui now is ready for this practice and it is appropriate to do so. In fact one often feels drawn to seclusion, to focusing purely on deepening ones insight after one has awakened. Hakuin talks of this and of course it comes up in the Chinese hermit tradition.  This is not a romantic notion of seclusion at this point, but the next logical step in ones practice.

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Autumn Kessei 2017 week 8

by tendo zenji

Escaping Trouble

A white-haired old man in my fifties
I’ve fled north and south away from trouble
this feeble body wrapped in thin clothing
always on the move and never warm
beset by illness and failing health
the world all mud and ashes
for ten thousand miles on Earth or in Heaven
I haven’t found a place I belong
my wife and children are still with me
whenever I see them I sigh
my hometown is a wasteland of weeds
all my neighbors have scattered
I don’t see a road leading back
I’ve cried out my eyes on Hsiang.

— Tu Fu
translated by Bill Porter (Red Pine) in Finding Them Gone

How to Stand, Walk and Sit

by tendo zenji

How to Stand, Walk and Sit

The Diamond Sutra on the Way of the Bodhisattva

“One day before noon, the Bhagavan put on his patched robe and picked up his bowl and entered the capital of Shravasti for offerings. After begging for food in the city and eating his meal of rice, he returned from his daily round in the afternoon, put his robe and bowl away, washed his feet, and sat down on the appointed seat. After crossing his legs and adjusting his body, he turned his awareness to what was before him.” (p. 39)

It is a common misperception that Ch’an (Zen) eschews the sutras, but one finds in the earliest historical documents that it has always been aligned with one or another sutra. The legends have it that the Fifth Chinese Patriarch, Daman Hongren, replaced the much more esoteric and metaphysical Lankavatara Sutra with the Diamond Sutra as the primary sutra used in his monastery. Legend also has it that an uneducated laborer on hearing a section of The Diamond Sutra had a sudden insight and coming to study with Hongren later became the Sixth Patriarch Huineng. To this day The Diamond Sutra is one of a handful of sutras regularly chanted, studied and taught in Ch’an training.

“In the first chapter, we see what a buddha does, which is not so different from our own daily round of existence, if we could only do what we do unhindered by attachments and see what we do unobstructed by delusions.” (Red Pine, p. 39)

The Diamond Sutra begins with the historical Buddha doing what he did every day: begging for food, taking care of his needs, eating a meal, sitting zazen and interacting with his students. The very first lines of the sutra in essence demonstrate the theme of the sutra as stated in the next section and explained over the subsequent thirty sections. The sutra is structured as a dialog between Subhuti and the Buddha and it is Subhuti who asks the question that is this theme of the sutra:

“Even so, Bhagavan, if a noble son or daughter should set forth on the bodhisattva path, how should they stand, how should they walk, and how should they control their thoughts?”   (p. 57).

The Diamond Sutra being a Mahayana text is concerned with the way of the bodhisattva,.“The Maha Prajnaparamita Sutra says a bodhisattva is “anyone who ceaselessly seeks unexcelled, perfect enlightenment as well as the happiness and welfare of all beings.” (p. 63). The sutra walks us through what being a bodhisattva entails via Subhuti who was considered the Buddha’s foremost disciple on the doctrine of emptiness (and in fact his name means “born of emptiness”). Subhuti is not yet a bodhisattva and for the purposes of this teaching represents a follower of the Hinayana (lesser path). Taking it from this perspective allows the sutra to also serve in explaining how the Mahayana differs from the Hinayana.

Hsu-fa says, “Essentially Subhuti is saying, ‘We have set out to attain the bodhisattva mind, but we do not know how to travel the bodhisattva path.’” (p. 65).

From the perspective of the Hinayana the instruction that one would expect would be one of how to be morally upright and of how to use meditation to control our thoughts. But instead of teachings on controlling our thoughts the Buddha informs Subhuti that in the bodhisattva must arise a thought.

The Buddha said to him, “Subhuti, those who would now set forth on the bodhisattva path should thus give birth to this thought: ‘However many beings there are in whatever realms of being might exist, whether they are born from an egg or born from a womb, born from the water or born from the air, whether they have form or no form, whether they have perception or no perception or neither perception nor no perception, in whatever conceivable realm of being one might conceive of beings, in the realm of complete nirvana I shall liberate them all. And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.’   (p. 71).

Here we set the roots of the Great Vow, the vow that defines the bodhisattva and distinguishes the Mahayana from the Hinayana. For it is in arousing this thought, this aspiration to liberate all beings, that sets these two paths apart. The bodhisattva in their impossible quest to liberate all beings, animate and inanimate, works toward their own liberation and as it will develop this aspiration is in fact a necessary condition for liberation.

“The bodhisattva path is the path of active, rather than passive, practice. Rather than advising us to suppress our thoughts, the Buddha preempts them. He advises bodhisattvas not to wait for thoughts to arise but to give birth to a thought that puts all other thoughts to flight, a thought like the morning sun that chases the myriad stars from the sky. The language used here suggests that this thought has been gestating within us for many lifetimes and it is now time to bring it forth, to give it life. Thus, this is the most important event in a bodhisattva’s career and what makes a bodhisattva a bodhisattva.” (Red Pine, p.72).

If it is arousing the Great Vow that makes a bodhisattva a bodhisattva, it is the last line of the above quote from The Diamond Sutra that points toward how a bodhisattva is to undertake this: And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated. Attachments are the primary hindrance in the path and the The Diamond Sutra dismantles this fundamental attachment from which all other attachments arise, namely the notion of a separated self.

Te-ch’ing says, “The primary method taught by the Buddha to liberate beings is to realize that there is no self. Once there is a self, the other concepts follow. In liberating beings, a bodhisattva should realize that there is no self. Once there is no self, there are no beings. And if there are no beings, then all beings are naturally liberated. And once all beings are liberated, the fruit of buddhahood is not far off.”   (p. 81).

 The Bodhisattva arouses the thought to free all beings without attachment to a self, a being, a life, and a soul (the Four Perceptions) with the understanding that there are no separated beings and thus no attachment to beings. But it is also necessary that the bodhisattva not be attached to the act of liberation itself. The act of charity, which striving to liberate beings certainly is, is one of the Six Perfections and is considered to be the only one to generate merit on its own. The Diamond Sutra in the fourth section turns to this notion of the generation of merit in a construction that is repeated throughout the sutra. Usually in dialog with Subhuti the Buddha asks him to imagine an increasingly great quantity and then to consider the accumulated merit one would gain by a corresponding amount of charitable giving. But each time he then notes that a bodhisattva who is unattached to giving, gains far more (infinite in fact) merit. It is in this way that ultimately the notion of the accumulation of merit, which one can certainly become attached to, is let go.

“In practicing charity, or any of the perfections, the Buddha warns against attachment to three things: the practitioner (in this case, the person who gives); the beneficiary (the recipient); and the practice (the giving of the gift). In his “Outline of Practice,” Bodhidharma says, “Since what is real includes nothing worth begrudging, we give our bodies, our lives, and our property in charity, without regret, without the vanity of giver, gift, or recipient, and without bias or attachment. To get rid of obstructions, we teach others, but without becoming attached to appearances.“ (Red Pine, p. 87)

Another central metaphor used throughout the Diamond Sutra is that of the Three Bodies: the incarnation body, the reward body and the dharma body. The incarnation body, is our physical body, the reward body is the body of merit that we have accumulated and the dharma body is the only actual real body: ultimate reality itself. The metaphor of the body has to do with the fruits of practice in form, merit and in realization. In the fifth section of the sutra the Buddha inquires as whether he can be seen via attributes of his physical bodies. This question is as asked four other times throughout the sutra, each time furthering our understanding of the nature of a buddha’s attainment.

Seng-chao says, “Bodhisattvas have three goals in mind: to liberate all beings, to cultivate all practices, and to realize enlightenment. Liberating others has already been explained as the way to practice. This section explains how to approach enlightenment. The bodily attributes of the Tathagata make up the body that comes with enlightenment. To recognize this dharma body is to realize enlightenment. But to think that its nature is real is to miss the mark. Thus, he points to the dharma body to explain the emptiness of enlightenment.” (p. 102).

The primary notions being presented in The Diamond Sutra are all present in the first five sections of the sutra. The remainder of the sutra, elucidates these points, taking them further and further to their ultimate ramifications. Again and again the question of merit arises, weighing greater and greater charitable gifts against the teaching of this sutra. But since the teachings of The Diamond Sutra can lead to liberation, no act of charity can compare.

The Buddha said, “Subhuti, if instead of filling the billion worlds of this universe with the seven jewels and giving them as a gift to the tathagatas, the arhans, the fully-enlightened ones, this noble son or daughter grasped but one four-line gatha of this dharma teaching and made it known and explained it in detail to others, the body of merit produced as a result would be immeasurably, infinitely greater.”

If, as The Diamond Sutra states over and over again, spreading the teaching contained herein is of such great value then this is can become another avenue for attachment. Furthermore since we are fundamentally inseparable from ultimate reality there isn’t really anything to realize. “Hui-neng puts it thus, “The realization of no realization is called true realization. The teaching of no teaching is called true teaching.” (p. 130). Since this is the essence of the teaching what is there to teach? Hui-neng comments “If we realize nothing and teach nothing, might we not vanish into emptiness? All buddhas, however, appear from this sutra“.

The purpose of bringing up this meeting [with Dipankara Buddha] is to contrast the bodhisattva’s attainment with that of the arhan’s. For it was during this encounter that the Buddha realized the forbearance of birthlessness, which is the final attainment of the bodhisattva, the ability to know and to bear the knowledge that nothing arose in the past, nothing now arises, and nothing will arise in the future. There is no greater traumatic experience or knowledge for someone on the spiritual path. Hence, such forbearance or acceptance requires kalpas of preparation. (p. 176).

Over the course of the sutra more and more is taken away. This has already been alluded to in the first five sections, which contain all of the sutras teachings. The most difficult barrier for the bodhisattva to cross, is the notion of birthlessness. This is emptiness taken to the limit that there is nothing, that ultimate reality as we have been talking about is fundamentally empty. And of course this emptiness is empty. This was considered such a shock that a bodhisattva would require multiple lifetimes to cultivate the forbearance necessary to realize this. In the earliest form of the Bodhisattva Precepts (the Brahma Net Precepts) to reveal birthlessness to someone not prepared for it was a grave violation of the precepts.

“The Buddha outlined the attainments of the bodhisattva, all of which turned out to be no attainments: no truth realized, no world transformed, no colossal spiritual self offered up to others. But the Buddha is concerned that his disciples might now conclude that since nothing is attained, there is no need to cultivate the merit upon which such non-attainment is based.” (Red Pine, p. 188).

At no point in the sutra is the Buddha so lacking in compassion that he would allow a student to fall into nihilism.   As each section takes away more and more attachments he occasionally pauses and notes that you still have to do the work. As long as there are beings caught in delusion all of the traditional notions of merit and the many teachings surrounding them are of value. These skillful means are rafts we use to get to the other shore, which should then be abandoned. There is no tool that the bodhisattva can’t put to use in the appropriate situation. Much of the latter half of the sutra is concerned with these skillful means

The Buddha told the venerable Subhuti, “The name of this dharma teaching, Subhuti, is the Perfection of Wisdom. Thus should you remember it. And how so? Subhuti, what the Tathagata says is the perfection of wisdom, the Tathagata says is no perfection. Thus is it called the ‘perfection of wisdom.’ (p. 203).

Prajna is commonly translated as wisdom, which it certainly does mean, but it also has the connotation of emptiness in a similar way as shunyata. The body of teaching that The Diamond Sutra belongs to is known as the Prajna Paramitas which means ‘the perfection of wisdom’. But in the view of prajna as emptiness it has to do with the logic of emptiness, which is a tool for cutting through delusion. Red Pine explains it thusly: “For emptiness means absence or negation, while the perfection of wisdom means the absence or negation of what is false, not the absence or negation of what is real.”  (p. 207). You can see the formation ‘logic of emptiness’ in the selection from section thirteen quoted above. It is dialectical in that you take a notion and negate it, but instead of unifying the two (ala Hegel) he instead affirms the original notion. This is because if we can understand something as not separate from fundamental reality, which is what is being negated, then indeed they exist.   “Thus, the arhan’s denial of reality becomes the bodhisattva’s affirmation. “(Red Pine p. 108).

The Buddha asks us simply to see things as they are and to share this vision with others. Buddhas do not arise from emptiness but from this teaching, which liberates us from both delusions and emptiness as well as from the renunciation of delusions and emptiness. (Red Pine, p. 205).

In Ch’an, the logic of emptiness is often removed completely from the realm of the verbal. When in a dynamic situation the Zen Master expresses the seamlessness with fundamental reality. “Meanwhile, Zen masters often shortened this logical technique even further by holding up one finger, by refusing to speak, by striking their disciples, or by offering them a cup of tea”. (Red Pine, p. 108).  The central teachings of The Diamond Sutra is the central teachings of Mahanyana Buddhism and Ch’an in the end is yet another skillful means for presenting it. In the final section of the sutra the Buddha, utilizing the logic of emptiness, elucidates the essence of the Ch’an style:

And how should they explain it? By not explaining. Thus is it called ‘explaining.’ (p. 429).

Bibliography

The Diamond Sutra
Translation and commentary by Red Pine
Counterpoint Press, 2002
ISBN: 1582432562

About the text

diamond-sutra-red-pine-coverThe Red Pine translation of The Diamond Sutra is of immeasurable value particular to the Zen practioner. Red Pine’s deep understanding of the sutra is made clear in his own commentary, which goes nearly line by line through the text. This sutra being the most compressed of the Prajna Paramita literature clearly assumes an audience that is completely versed in early, as well as Mahayana, Buddhist teachings and metaphysics. It never adds an explanation where a term that is freighted with decades of interpretation will serve. Without this kind of commentary it is unlikely that even a well-versed Buddhist will truly grasp what is being conveyed. Beyond that Red Pine always translates a healthy selection of historical commentary, ranging from other entries in the Prajna Paramita literature, to early Indian commentaries, to selections from a book of commentary by fifty odd Zen masters, to contemporary figures like Thich Nhat Hanh. The value of these additional comments, particularly in adding the Zen perspective, is immense. His choice of utilizing an early Sanskrit source as his basis of the translations avoids the errors that have come down from early Chinese translations which previous English translation have arrived. His scholarship is such that he compares (and explains in translation notes) a number of the major sources in Chinese, Tibetan and Sanskrit. There simply isn’t a more comprehensive, yet completely readable, translation and study of this fundamental text.

Early Ch’an – The Lankavatara Sutra

by layman k

When one looks back the earliest roots of Ch’an the primary question is “what is it?”  What was it that distinguished Ch’an from other forms of Buddhism that had already taken hold in China and just what was it’s nature and practices. There doesn’t really seem to be a definitive answer on just what Ch’an was at the very beginning as the documentary record is particularly sparse and the founding is shrouded in myth and legend.  The founding of Ch’an of course is attributed to Bodhidharma and there are a number of references to him using the Lankavatara Sutra as his primary or only text.  There was enough of these references along with others in the early historical record that I felt I needed to devote some time to this sutra. Happily Bill Porter (Red Pine) has just published a new translation of The Lankavatara Sutra based explicitly on the Chinese translation often referenced in these early sources.

The first two translations of the Lankavatara Sutra into Chinese occurred prior to Bodhidharma’s arrival in China the earliest surviving text by Gunabadhra. This is the text supposedly handed down by Bodhidharma and is the primary source for the translation by Red Pine. The only other complete english translation is by D. T. Suzuki and can be found online though as Red Pine notes in his entry it was made from rather dubious sources.  There has not been a version of the sutra found that is earlier than the Chinese translations and Suzuki used a Sanskrit translation that had been made from these older Chinese sources and are apparently rather error prone.  For the english speaker Red Pine’s translation is certainly quite welcome especially as it has extensive commentary as well as notes on how each translation handled certain sections. Additionally he also took advantage of both ancient and modern Chinese commentary on the sutra as aids to understanding (for much more on the translations of this sutra see Red Pines introduction).

“The meaning of the Lankavatara is so subtle and illusive and its language so unadorned and antiquated that the reader is often unable to read it, much less get past the words to the meaning or get past the meaning to its heart.”
— Su Tung-p’o quoted in Red Pine’s introduction (1, p. 12, pp. 3).

It is far beyond the scope of this post and the authors abilities to fully delve into the Lankavatara Sutra. It is a long, dense, convoluted and deep work, one that is said to require a teacher to fully engage with. While I found this sutra to be very powerful and challenging I alas only had Red Pines invaluable commentary and was not working with a teacher on this material.  However since my purpose here is to consider this sutra in light of early Ch’an this should not present too much difficulties. Of course one should excuse my glosses, incomplete explanations and outright ignoring of vast amounts of the sutra’s contents due to this focus. I should note that this is certainly a sutra that I’ll return to again and would hope to work with a teacher on some day.

Just as the Diamond Sutra teaches detachment from dharmas, and the Heart Sutra teach the emptiness of dharmas, the Lankavatara teaches the non-projection of dharmas, that there would be no dharmas to be empty or to be detached from if we did no project them as existing or not existing in the first place.” — Red Pine (1, p. 4, pp. 3)

The Lankavatara has two main teachings “nothing but mind” which is the basis of Yogacara but then moves beyond that to emphasize “self-realization” which is the most explicit connection to Ch’an. Much of the content of this long sutra is increasingly refined applications of these principles to various facets of Buddhist philosophy with considerable time devoted to pointing out the shortcomings of various other schools and paths toward understanding this. There is much in this sutra that you can find in the sayings and metaphors of the Ch’an teachers and a few sections that as Red Pine puts it “If there ever was a sutra that presented the underlying teaching of Zen, this is it.”  The following  quotations from Section LVI (p. 161-3) are an example of this. The sutra, as is typically the case, is presented as a dialog between the historical Buddha and in this case a bodhisattva named Mahamati.

The teaching known and passed down by the sages of the past is that projections are nonexistent and that bodhisattvas should dwell alone in a quiet place and examine their own awareness. By relying on nothing else and avoiding views and projections, they steadily advance to the tathagata stage. This is what characterizes the personal realization of Buddha knowledge. ” (1, p. 163, pp. 3)
“Mahamati, what characterizes the one path? When I speak of the one path, I mean the one path of realization. And what does the one path to realization mean? Projections, such as projections of what grasps or what is grasped, do not arise in suchness. This is what the one path to realization means.” (1, p. 163, pp. 4)

The cultivation of “personal realization” is of course the practice of Ch’an and here too we see some hints for how this was practiced at this time. As this is the primary theme to this series we shall return to that at greater detail in subsequent entries.  That the nature of reality is illusion is a core tenant throughout Buddhism but the Lankavatara goes beyond this with this notion that all objects are  projections of our minds and our attachments to these objects form “habit-energy” from which all reality springs.  This “mind-only” teaching is also at the core of Ch’an though the emphasis is placed more on attaining this realization as opposed to considering all of the ramifications of this teaching on the conceptual categories of Mahayana thought.

“Thus, Mahamati, you should focus your efforts on true meaning. The true meaning is subtle and silent. It is the cause of nirvana. Words are linked to projections, and projections are tied to birth and death. Mahamati, the true meaning is learned from the learned. Mahamati, those who are learned esteem meaning and not words. Those who esteem meaning don’t accept the scriptures and doctrines of other schools. They don’t accept them for themselves, nor do they cause others to accept them. Thus they are called ‘learned and virtuous’. Hence, those who seek meaning should approach those who are learned, those who esteem meaning. And they should distance themselves from those who do the opposite and who attach themselves to words.” (1, Section LXXVI, p. 221 pp. 1)

The above quote also gets at another of the canonical features of Ch’an which is the notion that it is “beyond words” and the emphasis is on direct transmission from a teacher. Thus in the Lankavatara we find the “mind only” teachings, the notions of direct experience, the primacy of realization and the importance of working with a realized master. Thus much of core teachings of Ch’an that have existed from the earliest days but continue to this day can be found in this sutra. Certainly it seems believable that monks bringing this sutra from India could spark that which would become Ch’an. It is certainly understandable why this text is still valued in Zen circles today.  Red Pine makes the argument that this sutra probably represented the teachings of a particular region in India was then brought to China. This bolsters the argument that Ch’an or something like it began in India and was developed in China. Furthermore he proposes that as Ch’an became more mainstream that the influence of the Lankavatara waned, supplanted by the Diamond Sutra. In the next entry in this series we shall examine what the historical record has to say of the Lankavatara and of it’s the influence in early Ch’an writings.

1) The Lankavatara Sutra: Translation and Commentary
Translated and commentary by Red Pine (Bill Porter)
Published by Counterpoint, February 12, 2013
ISBN-10: 1619020998 | ISBN-13: 978-1619020993

2)  The Lankavatara Sutra, A Mahayana Text
Translated by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki
Original Edition Published in London in 1932.
Based upon the Sanskrit edition of Bunyu Nanjo (1923).
Published in Internet by © do1@yandex.ru,  May 2004, 2005. (Rev. 2)
For free distribution only.

3) Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra
by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki
Published by Munshirm Manoharlal Pub Pvt Ltd (January 1, 1998)
ISBN-10: 8121508339 | ISBN-13: 978-8121508339