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Tag: Zen

Golden Age of Ch’an

by tendo zenji


Over the next few months during the Sunday Zazenkai at Tahoma Zen Monastery there will be readings and short talks from essential figures in the development of Ch’an.  This is a continuation of the early Ch’an readings and talks and will be in two parts. The first will examine how Ch’an developed from Hui-neng (the Sixth Patriarch) whose teachings still reflected the Indian Buddhist Madhyamaka philosophies into what we have come to think of as idiomatic Ch’an.

The second part will examine the Five Houses of Ch’an two of which, the Lin-chi and Caodong, survive today as Rinzai and Soto Zen.  This part will examine surviving teachings of all five of the schools and look at how they gradually winnowed down to just the Lin-chi and Caodong schools by the time Ch’an transmitted to Japan.

Below I will include excerpts from the Wikipedia pages on the Golden Age and on the Five Houses. These articles are a good introduction to these topics and, with the usual Wikipedia caveats, worth reading. The various texts and online resources that are used throughout the series will eventually be collected into a single resources page.

In the introductory talk we also read from The Infinite Mirror: Commentaries on Two Ch’an Classics by the contemporary Ch’an Master Sheng Yen. In his introduction to Song of the Precious Mirror Samadhi he compares the more philosophically-oriented Caodong and action-oreiented Lin-chi schools and the pitfalls that lies in either extreme.

Part 1: The Golden Age of Ch’an

Hongzhou school
The Hongzhou school was a Chinese school of Chán of the Tang period, which started with Mazu Daoyi (709–788). It became the archetypal expression of ch’an during the Song Dynasty.

Shítóu Xīqiān (700-790) was an 8th-century Chinese Ch’án Buddhist teacher and author. All existing branches of Zen throughout the world are said to descend either from Shitou Xiqian or from his contemporary Mazu Daoyi.

Part 2: The Five Houses of Ch’an

During the Song the Five Houses of Ch’an, or five “schools”, were recognized. These were not originally regarded as “schools” or “sects”, but based on the various Chan-genealogies. Historically they have come to be understood as “schools”.

The Five Houses of Chan are:

  • Linji school (臨濟宗), named after master Linji Yixuan (died 866), whose lineage came to be traced to Mazu, establishing him as the archetypal iconoclastic Chan-master;

Early Ch’an Sources

by tendo zenji

For the last three months or so during the Sunday Zazenkai at Tahoma Zen Monastery we have been reading and examining various early Ch’an texts along with supportive material. These are the sources and references used in this series along with some commentary and notes.

Core Indian Buddhist Philosophies


Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra. The advent of the Prajnaparamita teaching in the second century B.C. signaled the beginning of Mahayana Buddhism, with its emphasis on the attainment of enlightenment rather than nirvana and its greater inclusion of laity in the pursuit of such a goal. Maha is Sanskrit for “great,” and prajnaparamita can mean “perfection of wisdom” or “transcendent wisdom.” In either case, this refers to the wisdom by means of which we see what is real, the way things really are. The Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra is the title of an encyclopedic collection of Perfection of Wisdom texts translated into Chinese by Hsuan-tsang in the middle of the seventh century.  from The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-neng by Red Pine.


Emptiness oriented, Nagarjuna the principle figure.
from Wikipedia: According to Madhyamaka all phenomena (dharmas) are empty (śūnya) of “nature,” a “substance” or “essence” (svabhāva) which gives them “solid and independent existence,”because they are dependently co-arisen. But this “emptiness” itself is also “empty”: it does not have an existence on its own, nor does it refer to a transcendental reality beyond or above phenomenal reality.


The ‘Mind Only’ school, Asana one of the principal figures.
From Wikipedia: Yogācāra; literally “yoga practice”; “one whose practice is yoga”) is an influential school of Buddhist philosophy and psychology emphasizing phenomenology and ontology through the interior lens of meditative and yogic practices. It was associated with Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism in about the 4th century CE, but also included non-Mahayana practitioners of the Dārṣṭāntika school.

Lankavatara Sutra

The Lankavatara Sutra: Translation and Commentary
by Red Pine
Counterpoint Press 2012

The core Yogacara text used in China. The translation by Guṇabhadra had a “mystery cult” like group in China and in some early linages he is thought of as the first patriarch before Bodhidharma. It has numerous elements that were part of the core character of Ch’an:

Personal realization

“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. ”  from section LVI, p. 163 pp. 3

One path

“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.”  from section LVI, p. 163 pp. 4

 Beyond Words and Letters

“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.” from Section LXXVI, p. 221 pp. 1


The Bodhidharma Anthology: The Earliest Records of Zen
Jeffrey L. Broughton
University of California Press; First edition (September 21, 1999)
ISBN-10: 0520219724

Two Entrances
Most likely written by T’an-Lin references the Madyhamaka favored sutra the Śrīmālā Sūtra which T’an-lin was expert on. “The key to the Two Entrances lies not in Bodhidharma but in the Śrīmālā and Armless Lin’s commentary on it. See page 68-74 for more on this as it’s an extensively developed point.

Letter 1 and 2
Most likely to Hui-k’o (the second patriarch). A longer version of the second letter is part of Hui-k’o’s entry in Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks (by Tao Hsüan), the earliest source on these figures.

Record I
Record I is heavily cited in Record of the Mirror of the Thesis by Yen-Shou as Method for Quieting Mind by Bodhidharma.

“What of the teachings of Record I? They are overwhelmingly of the Śūyavāda, the school of sunyata or voidness. Two Śūyavāda texts weave their way through Record I, the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa, a sutra, and the Middle Treatise (Chuing-lun), which consists of Nāgārjuna’s Middle Verses (Madhyamaka-kārikā) and a commentary by the Indian Madhyamika Pińgala. Not only are these two texts quoted numerous times; their teachings informalities a good deal of Record I.” page 80-81

Record II
Record II truly constitutes the beginnings of the recorded-sayings genre of Ch’an literature. There is a direct line from this work to the vast literature of Ch’an recorded sayings, and neglect of Record II has led us to place the beginnings of the recorded-sayings genre much too late in the history of Ch’an literature–usually in the ninth century.

“Dharma Master Chih saw Dharma Master Yüan on the street of butchers and asked: “Do you see the butchers slaughtering the sheep?” Dharma Master Yüan said: “My eyes are not blind. How could I not see them? Dharma Master Chih said: “Master Yüan, you are saying you see it!” Master Yüan said: “You are seeing it on top of seeing it!” p. 39

While Record II fell out of general Ch’an usage is at least a model, if not a direct referent for the later A Treatise on the Ceasing of Notions (see below).

Record III
A collection of sayings as opposed to the dialogs of Record I and II. It contains quite a few sections devoted to Hui-k’o which Broughton describes thusly: “Given that the content of those sayings is in fact Madhyamaka in flavor, Record III might be called, at least in its first portion, a repository of the Madhyamaka legacy of Hui-k’o.

Hsin Hsin Ming

Attributed to Chien-chih Seng-ts’an (Third Patriarch) though scholarship has determined that to be unlikely. There are a number of translations of this text. The one I read was from the Dai Bai Zan Chobo Bo Zen Ji Sutra book which can be downloaded here: Chobo-Ji Sutra Book (pdf). However there are better translations including this one: Hsin-Hsin Ming: Verses on the Faith-Mind. That translation as well as D.T. Suzuki’s, the original Chinese and a literally translation plus historical information and commentary can be found on this essential site: Faith Mind Inscription.

A Treatise on the Ceasing of Notions

A good website on this early text can be found here: Jue Guan Lun. During the series we used two different translation.

The Ceasing of Notions: An Early Zen Text from the Dunhuang Caves with Selected Comments
by Martin Collcutt (Introduction), Myokyo-ni (Translator), Michelle Bromley (Translator)
Wisdom Publications (December 17, 2012)

A Dialogue on the Contemplation-Extinguished,
translated by Gishin Tokiwa
The Institute for Zen Studies, 1973.

The first translation includes embedded commentary and is a bit more difficult to just read the text.  It can also be ready on the Jue Guan Lun. website along with some selected commentary and additional information.  The second translation was the text primarily used. It is more academic and is a bit stiff, but is more readable and contains the Chinese as well.

This text is a dialog between a teacher (Master Nyuri/Attainment, whose name means “Entrance into the Principle”) and his disciple Emmon/Gateway (“Gate of Affinities”) and follows more in the Madhyamaka tradition. Especially note the way that emptiness is discussed in this text. It is though a late enough Ch’an text that it has elements of Yogacara as well as Chinese Taoist thought in it as well.

Buddhist scholar, John McRae, attributes this text to the Ox-head School of early Chan.
Circa 750. More of McRae’s scholarship on early Ch’an can be found here: The Antecedents of Encounter Dialogue in Chinese Ch’an Buddhism.

On Emptiness


Codependent arising / Dependent Origination

The Buddhist notion of emptiness is that there is nothing that exists independently of anything else. When you examine anything, thoughts, objects, emotions, you can always find conditions and causes that preceded it. If you eliminate all of those what remains? Nothing. There isn’t anything that exists intrinsically of its own accord. This is emptiness and this emptiness is the only thing that has no causes or conditions. This emptiness is ultimate reality.

Nagarjuna from Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way Ch. 24

24.18: Whatever is dependently originated
is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
is itself the Middle Way.

24.19 There does not exist anything
that is not dependently originated.
Therefore, there does not exist
anything that is not empty.

Nothing exists that is not dependent on others. “Emptiness means absence of intrinsic or independent existence.”

Barry Kerzin, Nagarjuna’s Wisdom
excerpted in The Wisdom Journal, p;. 5 Wisdom Publications Spring 2019

While sitting in a cross-legged position on a comfortable seate, contemplate for a while as follows: There are two kinds of entities, material and nonmaterial. In this regard, material entities are collections of minute particles. When these are closely examine and broken up according to their directional parts, not even the most subtle part remains and they are completely without appearance. Nonmaterial is the mind. In regard to this, the past mind has eased and perished. The mind of the future has not yet arisen or occurred. Even the mind of the present is extremely difficult to examine: it has no color and is devoid of shape; since it is similar to space, it is not established; and since it is free of unity and multiplicity, unproduced, and having a luminous nature and so forth, when it is analyzed and examine with the weapon of reasoning, one realizes that it is not established.

In this way, when those two are not established as having any nature at all and do not exist, the very wisdom that individually discriminates in not established either. … “… when all specific and generally characterized things are established as nonexistent, wisdom itself, without appearance and luminous, is not established with any nature at all. All faults such as laxity and excitement and so forth are eliminated. In this interval of meditation, consciousness does not conceptualize, does not apprehend anything at all. All recollection and mental engagement are eliminated. Consciousness would reside in this way for as long as the enemies or thieves of phenomenal marks and conceptual thoughts do not arise.

Jewels of the Middle Way by James Apple. p. 277-278
excerpted in The Wisdom Journal, p;. 29 Wisdom Publications Spring 2019

The Ceasing of Notions: An Early Zen Text from the Dunhuang Caves with Selected Comments
An Instructive Talk between Master Nyuri and Disciple Emmon
Translated by Myokyo-ni (Irmgard Schloegl) and Michelle Bromley

Master Nyuri (whose name means “Entrance into the Principle”) Attainment
Emmon (“Gate of Affinities”) are discussing the truth. Gateway


1 Emmon asks, “As for the principle of ultimate emptiness, how can it be proven and verified?”
Master Nyuri answers, “Seek it in all forms, confirm it in your own words.”

2 Emmon: “How does one seek it in all forms and confirm it in one’s own words?”
Nyuri: “Emptiness and forms are one. Words and confirmation are not two.”

3 Emmon: “If all existing things are empty, why can only buddhas see this and not ordinary people?”
Nyuri: “It is obscured by the working of error but becomes clear in the stillness of truth.”
Value judgments give rise to arbitrary notions motivated by self-centeredness, and so they are contrary to the natural harmony.

4 Emmon: “If all forms are really empty, how can they get perfumed? Conversely, if they do get perfumed, how can they be empty? Or realize emptiness?”
Nyuri: “Speaking of what is false at once gives rise to the ordinary delusion and its workings. In true emptiness there is nothing that can attract perfumes.”

5 Emmon: “If all forms are really empty, then surely there is no need to train in the Way. Is this because sentient beings are already by nature empty?”
Nyuri: “Once the principle of emptiness is realized, there is indeed no need for training. Delusions about existence arise only because emptiness has not been penetrated completely.”

6 Emmon: “In that case, to drop all delusions is to unite with the Way. Do you mean that all have gone astray?”
Nyuri: “By no means. Delusions are not the Way, but neither is letting go of delusions the Way. Why? For example, one who is drunk is not sober. And, if sober, he is not drunk. Though the state of being drunk and being sober do not exist without each other, yet being drunk is not, at the same time, being sober.”

7 Emmon: “Where is the drunkenness after one has become sober?”
Nyuri: “It is like turning over the palm of one’s hand. After having turned it over, why ask where it is?”


Taoist Emptiness

Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China
by David Hinton
New Directions; May 30, 2005
ISBN-10: 0811216241

No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-Men Kuan,
by David Hinton
Shambhala (February 27, 2018)
ISBN-10: 161180437X

“Tao originally meant “way,” as in “pathway” or “roadway,” a meaning it has kept. But Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu redefined it as a spiritual concept by using it to describe the process (hence, a “Way”) through which all things arise and pass away. We might approach their Way be speaking of it at its deep ontological level, where the distinction between presence (yu) and absence (wu) arises. Presence can be understood in a fairly straightforward way as the empirical universe, the ten thousand living and nonliving things in constant transformation; and absence as the generative void from which this ever-changing realm of being perpetually arises.” (p.  xiv)

“The mechanism by which being burgeons forth out of nonbeing is tzu-jan. The literal meaning of tzu-jan is “self-ablaze.” From this comes “self-so” or “the of-itself,” hence “spontaneous” or “natural.” But a more revealing translation of tzu-jan might be “occurrence appearing of itself,” for it is meant to describe the ten thousand things emerging spontaneously from the generative source, each according to its own nature, independent and self-sufficient, each dying and returning into the process of change, only to reappear in another self-generating form.”  (p.  xiv)

“The vision of  tzu-jan recognizes earth to be a boundless generative organism, and this vision gives rise to a very different experience of the world. Rather than the metaphysics of time and space, it knows the world as an all-encompassing present, a constant burgeoning forth that includes everything we think of as past and future. It also allows no fundamental distinction between subjective and objective realms, for it includes all that we call mental, all that appears in the mind. And here lies the awesome sense of the sacred in this generative world: for each of the ten thousand

The Platform Sutra

The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-neng
by Red Pine
Counterpoint; November 6, 2006
ISBN-10: 1593760868

Direct and indirect
And what is the origin of “direct” and “indirect”? Although there is only one kind of Dharma, understanding can be fast or slow. When understanding is slow, we say it’s “indirect.” And when understanding is fast, we say it’s “direct.” The Dharma isn’t direct or indirect, it’s people who are sharp or dull. This is why we have the terms “direct” and “indirect.”

Pine, Red. The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-neng . Counterpoint. Kindle Edition.

The Master told Chih-ch’eng, “I’ve heard that when your Zen master teaches people, he only gives instruction in morality, meditation, and wisdom. Tell me, what does your master teach people about morality, meditation, and wisdom?” Chih-ch’eng said, “Concerning morality, meditation, and wisdom, Master Shen-hsiu says not committing evil is morality, doing good is wisdom, and purifying one’s thoughts is meditation. This is what he means by ‘morality, meditation, and wisdom.’ This is his explanation. What is the Master’s view?”

Hui-neng replied, “This explanation is wonderful, but my view is different.” Chih-ch’eng asked, “How is it different?” Hui-neng replied, “Understanding can be fast or slow.” Chih-ch’eng then asked the Master to explain his view of morality, meditation, and wisdom. The Master said, “Listen to my explanation, and you’ll see how I view them. When the land of your mind is free of error, this is the morality of your own nature. When the land of your mind is free of confusion, this is the meditation of your own nature. When the land of your mind is free of ignorance, this is the wisdom of your own nature.” The Master continued, “The morality, meditation, and wisdom of your master are intended for small-minded people. My morality, meditation, and wisdom are intended for people of bigger minds. Once people realize their own nature, they don’t differentiate between morality, meditation, and wisdom.” Chih-ch’eng said, “Could the Master please explain why they aren’t differentiated?” The Master said, “Our nature is free of error, free of confusion, and free of ignorance. Prajna shines in every thought and is forever free of attributes. What is there to differentiate? Our nature is something we cultivate directly. It doesn’t have any intervening stages, so we don’t differentiate any.”


your life is a shadow

by tendo zenji

Your life is a shadow
lived inside a dream,
Once that is realized
self and other vanish.
Pursue fame, the glory
of a prince won’t suffice;
Take a step or two back
a gourd dipper’s all you need.
No matters in the mind
passions quiet of themselves
mind freed from matter
means suchness everywhere.
The moment these truths
are grasped as your own
the mind opens and clears
like the empty void above

— Baisao from The Old Tea Seller: Life and Zen Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto translated by Norman Waddell

Autumn Kessei 2017 Week 13

by tendo zenji


Rohatsu Sesshin 2017

dawn fire pours from the sky
flowing down the mountain
strewn stars on liquid glass
a full moon leans in close
chased by rags of clouds
with a grinding cry
a blue heron lifts
tattered wings
flies away

Autumn Kessei 2017 week 3

by tendo zenji

Instructions for the Tenzo


 Since ancient times this position [tenzo] has been held by accomplished monks who have way-seeking mind, or by senior disciples with an aspiration for enlightenment.  This is so because the position requires wholehearted practice. Those without way-seeking mind will not have good results, in spite of their best efforts.  Regulations for Zen Monasteries states, “Use your way-seeking mind carefully to vary the menus from time to time, and offer the great assembly ease and comfort.”
Dōgen zenji, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi in Moon in a Dewdrop, p. 53


by tendo zenji

two komuso

When Ch’an was transmitted to Japan the major school (Lin-ji) arrived first and evolved into the Rinzai school.  Dōgen brought the Caodong school to Japan which through his genius became a new school known as Sōtō.  In China Ch’an continued on and took on many of the the elements of Pure Land Buddhism.  Eventually there was another transmission of Ch’an to Japan based on this later Ch’an which in Japan became the Ōbaku school.  These would be the three largest zen sects in Japan all derived from Ch’an schools.  But there is a fourth school, the Fuke sect, that all mythology aside, was developed in Japan.

There is a lot of mythology around the Fuke sect, which the sect itself promoted from it’s earliest records. But details around the founding aside, it does seem that the basic outlines of the sect can be pretty easily determined.  The core feature of the Fuke-Shu is that their practice revolves around the playing of the shakuhachi, the Japanese bamboo end blown flute.  The instrument itself seemed to have come to Japan from China, but in a somewhat different form. Over the years it was developed in Japan into it’s own instrument, primarily by the Komuso, who were the “monks” of the Fuke sect.

There has been a tradition of wandering musicians in Japan and they often could be religiously affiliated. One group of these were known as the Komoso or “mat monks” who played a proto-shakuhachi and carried a rolled up mat with them to sleep on.  It was this group who started the basis of the religious aspects adopting Fuke (Puhua) from the Rinzai-roku (Lin-ji Yulu) as their patron.  I personally find this rather striking as Fuke is probably amongst the wildest and most idiosyncratic individuals in the Ch’an literature.  It seems very much like musicians to adopt such a figure.

Figures of Edo Japan sm

During the Edo period in Japan, the samurai went into decline and there were increasing numbers of masterless samurai (ronin) attempting to survive in an increasingly peaceful culture.  Becoming wandering mendicant musicians appealed to a number of them and thus the Fuke-Shu developed into a genuine religious sect. At this time it affiliated itself with the Rinzai sect and developed a set of structures for it’s adherents.  Ronin were required to turn in their swords and they would wander playing shakuhachi with their identities obscured by a basket they wore over their heads.  Alone in Japan they were granted the right to travel freely throughout the country.

The combination of anonymity and the ability to travel freely was rife for abuse and there are many legends of spies, assassins and corruption of myriad kinds.  However the Fuke-Shu seemed to become increasingly religious from it’s more spurious roots and they really developed into a serious practice. And this practice is very interesting and unique.  The sect was eventually disbanded by the government during the Meiji Restoration but in less than a decade the government was convinced to allow the shakuhachi to become a secular musical practice and much of the komuso repertoire was preserved.

It is this repertoire of music that is of primary interest to myself.  These pieces have come to be known as honkyoku which means original music.  That is the music originally composed for the instrument.  These pieces, though their origin is lost and there is much mythology surrounded them, served the same purpose as different chants in traditional zen practice. That is that there are pieces that you would use for various ceremonial purposes, that a zen monk would undertake.  Furthermore numerous pieces were played as zazen that is for the purposes of cultivating samadhi.  The breathing techniques, the singleminded concentration required and the unstructured flow of these pieces really facilitates this.  They may sound “meditative” to the listener at times (but some of these pieces, definitely do not!) but they functioned as meditation for the performer.  There were ceremonial pieces used for mendicancy or ceremonies, which could be thought of as a performance repertoire, but the pieces used for meditation were, like zazen, an individual practice.

Komuso Schematics

The komuso, in their formal, monk like attire and with the striking basket on their heads became a figure of popular legend in Japan. Sometimes thought of as scary, usually as mysterious, often with the veneration that clergy can be granted.  Their name translates as “monks of nothingness” and there is I think a very appealing romanticism to their striking anonymous images. There are many pictorial representations of the komuso in the Japanese arts, including photographs once that technology arrived on the island.

As I explore the honkyoku repertoire and the aspects of practice therein, it will be interesting to investigate it in terms of traditional Rinzai practice.  This will be an occasional focus of this blog over the upcoming years.  But learning these pieces is slow going — they are complicated and intricate and the shakuhachi has a very demanding technique, especially in the honkyoku tradition — so occasionally we will look at what we can find on the Fuke-shu and it’s traditions as well as publish images that I have collected of the komuso in Japanese artist representation.

A very good and succinct overview of what seems historically accurate about the komuso can be read on Jon Kypros Shakuhachi site here: Komuso shakuhachi monks of Japan.

The best text that I have encountered on a general history of the shakuhachi and it’s performances practices is:
Shakuhachi: Roots and Routes
by Henry Johnson
Brill Academic Pub; Lam edition, 2014
ISBN-10: 9004243399


Nyogen Senzaki Day

by tendo zenji


Nyogen Senzaki (千崎 如幻, 1876–1958)

“Why were we secluded in this mountain temple? Nothing but realization was the reason. Some of us were sitting under old trees, others on moss-covered rocks as night spread its darkness around us without hesitation, dew falling heavily on our black robes.” (p. 101)

Encouragement Talk

by tendo zenji

“I could show you my clenched fist and open it—and bid you all good night.But that is not the way things are done in the West—and so I am forced to give as a substitute, dualistic explanations, though that’s not at all the way to express Zen.” (1)

It was the fifth day of this winter retreat when the storm hit.  The last few days had been clear and cold with a persistent, bone chilling wind out of the west. It was early afternoon, time dragging down eyelids forcing one to struggle to remain upright.  Sitting upright, eyes wide, gazing out the window at the tops of the trees at the far end of the lake.  Suddenly, as if in a dream, the trees are obscured by a pale mist.  Visibility rapidly decreases. What seemed to be a fog rolling in was revealed to be a snowstorm that quickly struck the windows as if it was hail.  The only view now, outside any of the windows, was one of a white blur.  Throughout all of this the bell was periodically struck.

“The teacher [Seppo] said: “Don’t stop until your axe cuts the very center of the trees.” He was an expert woodsman as well as a Zen master. Many Americans are currently seeking truth, visiting classes in philosophy one after another, and studying meditation under various teachers. But how many of these students are either willing or able to cut through to the tree’s very core? Scratching halfheartedly around the surface of the tree, they expect someone else to cut the trunk for them. Zen wants nothing to do with such mollycoddles!” (2)

When one has committed oneself to monastic practice the options narrow. You can abide on the surface, coasting along sit after sit.  Yet sit continues to follow sit and retreat follows retreat relentlessly. Struggle as you might that is inescapable. Choosing to do retreat after retreat, being fully present for sit after sit presents a different set of circumstances. Checking out is an option; not attending the next retreat is an option. Equivalently delving ever deeper, pushing ever harder, balancing on the edge of the knife; this too is a choice.  In whatever manner you are able it is this latter choice that should be supported.  Things can never be made easy enough for those who have checked out, but those testing their limits can always be pushed harder.

“Zen masters used to hide themselves in remote parts of the world, meditating in the deep mountains among trees and rocks, with monkeys and rabbits for companions. They did so not because they were misanthropic, but because they wanted to guard their Dharma against the dust of glory and fame. Modern students of religion are altogether too impatient. Without waiting for the fruit to ripen, they open up their stores and begin to sell their wares. Such unripened fruit is unhealthy, and may cause injury to those who do not know the difference.” (3)

It took three days hard cycling to reach the lake. It was late in the season and there were few people about.  The mountains had yet to reclaim their white beards, the rings around the lake attested to the months without rain. The salmon, bright red in the clear water, struggled ever further inland to reach the place of their birth. The cold nights bring out the endless stars like handfuls of diamonds cast upon a blackboard. The cold drives the few people to retreat into their dwelling places and bedclothes. A few strange bird calls. When asked why I’m here, I have nothing to say, but futilely gesture toward the stream, the lake, the mountains.

“Yes, it is the taste that matters— the flavor of the moment, of people and places. When I make a cup of tea for a guest, I become a servant; when my guest receives the cup with naturalness and ease, he becomes the host. This is the taste of tea and the essence of ceremony.” (4)

Saying nothing is often the most appropriate response. It is tempting sometimes to think that explaining something— our perspective, our point of view, an experience, our feelings— is always worth doing.  Being able to sit with someone and not have to say anything is genuine intimacy.  This late in the history, in the west, could one just sit there silently? hold up a finger? a flower? When giving words is there a dwelling on the speaker? or the listener? or the words? If so, who is the host and who is the guest? “Have a cup of tea.”

“Now while I certainly don’t want any of you to die before you are very old, I do want you all to die like buddhas—peacefully and calmly. We are performing birth-and-death every minute, every hour, every day and every year. Whether you make yourself a three-minute Buddha or a ten-year Buddha is up to you. Only two more days remain of this seclusion week. Make yourselves at least two-day buddhas!” (5)

The rain had been coming down steadily for the last few days; the snow was fast retreating from the onslaught. The rain would slam into the building, filling the space with a bright wash of sound. Then it would just as suddenly cease, leaving only the dripping and the creaking of the old building. At night we would raise our voices in a single syllable, layer upon layer, rising and falling, extolling our connection to all things.  A raindrop is born in the clouds, exists as a separate entity while it falls, then mergers with the absolute when it reaches the earth. The rains start and stop and each time countless raindrops fall. Two days left.

“To live in Zen, you must watch your steps minute after minute, closely. As I have always told you, you should be mindful of your feet, not of your head or chest, in your meditation as well as in your everyday life. Keep your head cool but your feet warm! Do not let sentiments sweep you off your feet!” (6)

There I was center orchestra, just a few dozen rows back from the stage.  The symphony poured their hearts into this rich, romantic drama and my thoughts began to drift. What was I going to do that evening after the symphony? Would it be too late, or could I perhaps get in some reading?  How crowded would the train be do you think?  Suddenly it came to me, these are just distracting thoughts! In the same way you bring your attention back to the breath, I need to bring it back to the symphony.  And so I did. Again and again.  Fully present, for much more of the time, the rich music evoked so much more to me. For a piece that I had heard probably hundreds of times, it became fresh once again. Do this for all things.

“As Buddha himself was cremated, my corpse should be treated the same way. The funeral must be performed in the simplest way. A few friends who live nearby may attend it quietly. Those who know how to recite sūtras, may murmur the shortest one. That will be enough. Do not ask a priest or anyone to make a long service and speech and have others yawn. Silence is the best offering to me!” (8)

All the rituals surrounding impermanence are for the living. Who is to say that what will bring comfort to one, will bring comfort to others?  The dead give nothing but silence.  The lesson of impermanence is straightforward, but we make it so much more complex.  Is it because we cannot let go? So much we do let go of without a thought: the raindrop hitting the earth, the breath leaving the body, sweat evaporating on backs, hoar frost fading in the sun, the yellowing leaves, an exclamation on entering cold water, the mosquito under the hand, each evenings setting sun. These connections are like all of our relationships and while they are a part of us we shouldn’t cling to them.

“Everything appears as if it exists, but we only recognize things in relative terms. The world is formless—simply a phenomenon of flux, consisting of various relations, conceivable only in relation to subjectivity and objectivity. Without this close relation, there is no thing, there is no world. Non dwelling means non attachment. Non attachment discourages our clinging ideas of loss and gain.” (7)

The long day is drawing to a close, only a few of us now seated under the glowing tree.  Sounds become more clearly delineated. Distantly there are some sensations of form, reminders of shape. Outlines become indistinct, slow down. Sounds merge into white noise. Who is it that is listening right now?  A serene light washes everything out. Silence. The sensations of form become increasingly acute. Nagging thoughts arise. The night ends before the morning star rises. Soon now there must be observances made, ritual observed, form followed.

“Remember me as a monk, and nothing else. I do not belong to any sect or cathedral. None of them should send me a promoted priest’s rank or anything of the sort. I wish to be free from such trash and die happily.” (8)

All citations are from the following collection:

Like a Dream, Like a Fantasy
The Zen Teachings and Translations of Nyogen Sensaki

Edited and Introduced by Eido Shimano
Wisdom Publications Somerville MA, 2005
ISBN-10: 0861712803

1) In This Lifetime, p. 144
2) In This Lifetime, p. 145
3) Ripe, Unriped Fruit, p. 138
4) Have a Cup of Tea, p. 164
5) Ripe, Unriped Fruit, p. 139
6) My Last Words, p. 167
7) The Diamond Sutra, p. 134
8) My Last Words, p. 168

Polishing the Mind Mirror

by tendo zenji

Polishing the Mind Mirror

(originally published in Plum Mountain News Autumn 2016)

Zen is not a religion based on faith; nor is it some sort of speculative philosophy. It is the actualization of the unselfish life. (1, p. 85)

This past summer a podcast was released from Roshi Bodhin as part the fiftieth anniversary of the Rochester Zen Center (2) in which he discussed their founder, Roshi Philip Kapleau. He covered Roshi Kapleau’s training in Japan and he noted that as he prepared to return to the United States his primary concern was how to translate his experiences into an American context (2.1).  This, Bodhin noted, is the great issue for every teacher of Zen in America.  He backed this up with an anecdote that at every American Zen Teachers Association (AZTA) meeting this is always the primary topic (2.2).  Whenever an American Zen teacher is interviewed this issue always comes up, whether implicitly or explicitly and it is one that everyone on that path has to address.  So it was of interest to me that Nyogen Sensaki wrote an essay entitled American Buddhism in 1932 that shows this has been the primary concern since year zero.

Modern religions must keep pace with science and human reasoning generally; otherwise, they lose their authority and perish. The true value of a religion should be judged by the brightness of its mirror of reasons; it should satisfy the intellect of whoever studies it. It should be judged by its ability to harmonize with actual life. (1, p. 77)

This quote from Nyogen has quite a bit to unpack.  I wonder how many religious teachers would say that their religion must “keep pace with science and human reasoning generally”? I do think that the evidence supports this statement; religions that do not evolve along with the changes in peoples understanding and culture do not last.  There seems to be generally three responses to this fact among the various religions. In the fundamentalist churches that I was raised in they tended to reject mainstream science and reason but instead created their own alternate universe of “science” to support their beliefs. These had the veneer of reason to them and satisfied at a surface level.  But it is a Red Queens Race where they have to run faster and faster to try to just keep pace with science and never quite succeed. Building their faith upon these foundations means that as they are disproved by mainstream science their beliefs are thus disproved.

“If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” ― Dalai Lama XIV (4)

Another common response is to deny this truth. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, Fundamentalist Islam, Evangelical Christians and many others take this approach.  They become increasingly alienated from society, withdrawing into their own increasingly medieval enclaves as science and humanity pass them by. Finally there are those like the Dalai Lama who fully embraced this and strive to keep pace with developments in science and acknowledge shifts in cultural and societal thinking. He has stated that core beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism such as karma and reincarnation can and have been rethought based on changes of scientific understanding.

Zen is based on self-evident fact, and so can convince anyone at any time. Because it is based on fact, Zen can pass freely through the gates of the innumerable teachings of the world; it offers no resistance and posed no threat, since its foundation is completely nondogmatic. The brighter one polishes one’s mind-mirror of reason, the more this true value of Zen can be appreciated. Because Zen is fact and not “religion” in the conventional sense of the term, the American mind, with its scientific cast, takes to it very readily, whereas other religions of an emotional nature do not have a lasting influence. (1, p. 78)

This dense quotation contains numerous ideas as well as some rather interesting assumptions about Zen, religion and Americans.  The notion that Zen in based on “fact” goes back to the original teachings of the Buddha.  In these early teachings he’d often encourage experimentation.  He’d explain something like the Eightfold Path and urge people to just try it out.  Just try Right Speech for a couple of weeks, he’d suggest, and see if it doesn’t make your life easier, reduce your suffering a little bit.  These basic rules, like the Golden Rule, are self-evident – you can just read them and understand that if you followed them things would go easier for you.  They aren’t tied to any particular belief either, unlike say the Ten Commandments, and are thus non-dogmatic.

The brighter one polishes one’s mind-mirror of reason, the more this true value of Zen can be appreciated”. This statement is a little more difficult to unpack considering that human reason is a tool we use in daily life that in Zen practice can be of limited value. In koan practice for instance you have to exhaust reason and eventually express your deep nature.  But here Nyogen is saying that through reason we can see that Zen is experimental, experiential and essentially human. It’s nondogmatic nature means that it poses no threat to established belief systems and norms. It is essentially a practice and the clearer we can see that the more its value can be appreciated.

Lastly this idea that the American Mind has a “scientific cast” is perhaps a bit outdated. Later in the essay he says “The American Mind is more inclined to practical activity than to philosophical speculation.” (1, p. 79) which I think is demonstrably true.  The thirties, when this was written, was a golden age of science, which was seen as a pure and guiding light. At this time in particular the Civic Religion of the US as well as many of the standard religions adopted a scientific cast, as this was generally accepted as the way forward. It was an Age of Reason, where science felt it only had a few ’t’s’ to cross and ‘i’s’ to dot before everything was understood.  But in the intervening years there has been an increasing skepticism toward science, a turning away from fact-based actions, an increase in fundamentalism, and conspiracy minded thinking.  “Scientism”, a superficial adoption of science into a system of belief, and dogmatic non-belief has eroded its authority.  When surveyed contemporary Americans are much more likely to have a non- or even anti- science bent and there is greater belief in conspiracy, the fantastical and outright false ideologies here then anywhere else in the Western World. (5)

The most beautiful part of a religion is its practical faith, not its philosophical argumentation. The American thinker requires that faith walk hand in hand with reason; only in this way can it be harmonized with the practical world.  The mere postulation of dogmas and creeds will never be approved of by the majority of Americans. … America Buddhism must be built upon a practical foundation. (1, p. 79)

This statement is one that I fully agree with, except that I question that this is the case for the “majority of Americans”.  As noted in the previous paragraph contemporary evidence shows that a majority of Americans do not exist in the “reality based community”.  Dogma and creeds – those of American Exceptionalism, White Supremacy, Male Privilege, and so – dominate over acting in rational ways.  There is a large subset of people who “require that faith walk hand in hand with reason” – I would number myself as one of them – but American Zen has poorly served them. Zen, as practiced in America, is often “soft”, descending from the Sixties fascination with the east and does not demand reason and criticality.  Ideas that bare no relation to the practical world are tolerated, even entertained.  Where is the demand for a practical foundation?  Nyogen recognizes this problem and cites this historical example:

Some sixty years ago H.P. Blavatsky established her Theosophical Society for the practice of the kind of esoteric Buddhism she had learned from Trans-Himalayan masters. After her death, strange elements from different cults began to creep in and corrupt the practice, until eventually the movement ceased keeping pace with modern science and philosophy, thereby disqualifying itself as a possible foundation for American Buddhism. (1, p. 80)

Nyogen, working alone at this point, laid the foundations of Zen to avoid these issues.  His Zen was based on reason, eschewed these “strange elements” and emphasized practicality, engagement with science and being in the world. But his faith that this being inherent to Zen is I think misplaced when brought to Zen Practice. Anything can be corrupted, people will always bring in “strange elements” and it is the rare person who will shift their beliefs to keep “pace with modern science and philosophy”.  While Zen itself eschews this kind of thinking, the mere toleration of this kind of wooly thinking erodes its fidelity. What would Nyogen think on seeing “New Age” elements tolerated, or even encouraged in various zendos?

In keeping with their reaction against sacerdotalism, the young thinkers of America are dreaming of a religion of practicality, which is precisely what Zen is. (1, p. 80)

Before I ever came to practice at Chobo-Ji this describes me exactly.  I have a file of notes for what I was calling “practical Zen” which married the practical self-reliance of Transcendentalism with Zen Practice (along with the devoted naturalism of both beliefs). Coming to practice in a Zen Center has taught me that self-reliance, while essential, can be overdone, can be another barrier.  No-one comes to realization on their own.  I have also come to understand that a sense of the scared is essential.  Form and ritual are things that people crave which feeds their sense of connection to all things.  But I’ve also seen a lot of compromises, many of which belie Nyogens conjecture of the inherent practically of Americans.  Some of the people attracted to Zen are as he describes.  But many are not and as noted they can bring many a corrupting influence.

Thus this question of American Zen continues to bedevil us fifty years after Roshi Kapleau tried to work out how to bring his experiences to America and almost a hundred years after Nyogen Sensaki began teaching a small group in San Francisco. We stand at an inflection point right now, where American Zen is in a particularly vulnerable state. Scandals have rocked sanghas across the country, but more damaging in my mind is the soft corruption of low standards. The rigor of Zen practice, if not corrupted by woolly thinking, is a natural preservative. But if that rigor is allowed to be diluted then it is a structure built on sand.  I’ll close with a quote from Jeff Shore that emphasizes this point.

Rinzai condemned – and in no uncertain terms! – what he called blind idiots, old shavepates, wild fox-spirits who can’t tell right from wrong. After all, Rinzai Zen only comes to life when one is dependent on nothing, within or without – deceived by no one, deceiving no one. Let us take this opportunity today to truly “know [our own] shame” so that the present quagmire can be cleaned up and the Way made clear.

Then, with the 1,200th memorial fifty years from now, a real and vital Zen will have taken root in the West. Let us open our eyes to what has happened. We cannot afford to hide our heads in the sand. Humbly aware of our own shortcomings, let us dedicate our lives to planting genuine Zen in the modern world and work together to ensure that it takes root. (3)

(1) Nyogen Sensaki, Like a Dream, Like a Fantasy: The Zen Teachings of Nyogen Sensaki
Edited and introduced by Eido Shimano
Wisdom Publications, 2005, Boston, MA
ISBN: 0-86171-280-3

(2) Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede,  Fifty Years of Change and Adaptations June 26, 2016 Rochester NY
Available online: http://rzc.org/sites/default/files/media/2016-8-21.mp3

(2.1) ibid. “One of the great distinctions of Roshi Kapleau, as compared to at least most other first generation Zen teachers – both Japanese and American – is his instance, from the beginning, that we have to find western forms for this historically Asian tradition.”

(2.2) ibid. “In our annual meetings of American Zen Teachers Association (AZTA), this is the central mission, we all agree is ours, which is to find ways to adapt an Asian Tradition to the West.”

(3) Jeff ShoreRinzai Zen in the Modern World, paper from the symposium on “Rinzai Zen in the Modern World”, May 13 & 14, 2016, Tokyo, Japan.
Available online: https://beingwithoutself.org/inspirations/rzitmw/

(4) Dalai Lama XIV The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality
Morgan Road Books, 2005
ISBN: 076792066X

(5) For one study on American’s beliefs in conspiracy see: http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2013/04/conspiracy-theory-poll-results-.html

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).


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.