Is That Zen?

After reading this article on What is Zen? I had the following thoughts.

Although it starts with the usual four lines attributed to Bodhidharma, it apparently presents only a shallow understanding of the first line (in his translation) about avoiding scriptures. The rest about seeing mind and becoming buddha remains a mystery. Instead there are rules, rituals and priests. And of course lots of sitting silently. Then in the second part there is some discussion about how Zen people should be nice, compassionate and socially engaged. So, if someone defines Zen like that, sadly Zen amounts to nothing more than an afternoon yoga class with some witty quotes pasted on the walls of the gym.

Let me offer a short commentary, to show how I like to think of Zen.

Separate transmission outside teachings.

That transmission not found in the teachings is from mind to mind. While this is easily confused nowadays with paper transmission, it actually means very simply understanding the Dharma. That is, whoever knows first hand that nothing can be attained has received that transmission. It has nothing to do with authorising people to perform ceremonies in black robes.

No reliance on words and letters.

Buddhism has a lot to say about language and its immense role in defining our reality of everyday experiences. Generally we see things depending on what we think about them, and what we think are conceptual constructs. Not relying on words does not mean being mute, it means seeing through the web of of linguistic fabrications, or rather understanding them for what they are. Just words and letters. But without any essence or any real substance to refer to with them.

Points straight to your mind.

This is the primary message of the four lines. Look nowhere else but your own mind. Zen is the sudden path, the way of direct enlightenment. Everything else are just decorations and distractions to entertain us. First difficulty is to know what mind means. Mind is the totality of our experience. It is nothing hidden but readily apparent. The reason it can be easily missed is that instead of just looking at our present experience we prefer coming up with ideas and explanations, that is, relying on words and letters. What is obvious for everyone about their ongoing experiences is that they are coming and going. We cannot keep it. Experience is totally ungraspable. There is not a single moment we can stay with. While we can think about past events, imagine future ones and label presently occurring impressions, feelings and thoughts, that very thinking itself is momentary. The Buddha taught that attachment is the cause of suffering. When we look straight at our experience it is perfectly clear that it is actually impossible to attach to anything.

Become buddha by seeing nature.

Seeing the nature of mind, of the totality of experience, is enlightening the truth that appearances are already free from conceptual and emotional limitations. In other words, emotional and conceptual attachments are themselves ungraspable experiences. Nowhere to go, nothing to attain. That is perfect liberation, buddhahood. 


Neither Walking Nor Sitting

After reading this thread I was again a bit amazed how watered down and useless what people imagine Zen is. Of the four samadhis taught in Tiantai/Tendai, the fourth is neither walking nor sitting, and that is the one recommended for householders busy with everyday matters. That's because it does not require a retreat environment but can be used everywhere. The same is true for the essential practice of Zen that is often called non-thought. No matter what goes on, if there is no grasping of any experience as substantial, as oneself or as one's own, but because it is clear that everything that occurs necessarily passes away, the mind is naturally open and aware.

What often goes for Zen is nothing more than the Zen of humans and gods, while the Zen of the Tathagata is something unimaginable for such people. When there are so called practitioners and teachers who can only advise others to sit fixed in a certain posture for a while, they not only don't know anything about what Shakyamuni and Bodhidharma taught, they cannot even understand such simple methods devised for ordinary people as investigating a phrase.

This is not an issue because of some sort of doctrinal purity, but because when there is a way that can help people it is a shame if not used. The whole point of Zen is to be simple and direct, nothing complicated or difficult. But either it is taken as some sort of mystical puzzle (koans), or oversimplified as a physical training (zazen). So seeing the nature of mind as the primary directive of Zen is totally lost.

[I will now] elaborate on [this teaching]. Because for numerous kalpas we have not encountered the true teaching, we have not known how to turn back and find the [true] origin of our bodily existence but have just clung to illusory phenomenal appearances, heedlessly recognizing [only] our unenlightened nature, being born sometimes as an animal and sometimes as a human. When we now seek our origin in terms of the consummate teaching, we will immediately realize that from the very outset we are the Buddha. Therefore, we should base our actions on the Buddha's action and identify our minds with Buddha's mind, return to the origin and revert to the source, and cut off our residue of ignorance, reducing it and further reducing it until we have reached the [state of being] unconditioned. Then our activity in response [to other beings] will naturally be [as manifold as] the sands of the Ganges— that is called Buddhahood. You should realize that delusion and enlightenment alike are [manifestations of] the one true mind. How great the marvelous gate! Our inquiry into the origin of humanity has here come to an end.


Sentient Beings are Buddhas

Our reality, our life is this present world of experiences. Every moment we have visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile and mental experiences. That is where we and our whole world exist. The first five we call the bodily senses and impressions from the material world, while the last one is the inner world of mind. And they all exist as conscious phenomena that we systematise in a conceptual framework, like objective and subjective.

What we can readily tell about our experiences is that they are universally impermanent, changing moment by moment. While we form a mental narration, the story of our life, all the time, that exists only in the realm of abstract concepts, and the actual experiences are always passing away without a moment delay. That means that whatever we like or dislike, consider as this or that, they are all without exception mental concepts, ideas and thoughts. At the same time, those very thoughts are also just passing away every moment.

Problems therefore are only our own making, just like everything else. To be mesmerised by the illusory world is to get lost in thoughts and ideas. It is illusory in the sense that it's built up by concepts that are themselves without any basis, thoughts that just come and go. Getting lost means thinking that there is a graspable essence in concepts, that they are important and real. Awakening from the dreamworld thus means seeing that all experiences are impermanent and insubstantial, that thoughts, concepts and ideas are ephemeral and unstable.

Although us, the world, this whole reality of experiences are already changing every moment, if that is not understood and seen clearly, we fall into the web of illusory concepts. Once the actual nature of everything is clear, there is no more reason to worry or fear, and simultaneously we can be open and embracing towards all that happens. That is the world experienced not in a narrow, self-centred, obsessed way, but as something alive, vivid, loving and peaceful.


True Nature of This Mind

Thoughts are what define whatever experience we have, both physical and mental. We have labels, categories and associations that build our thinking, and thinking is what gives shape and meaning to all our impressions and at the same time controls and guides our actions and reactions. Thinking is what our personality is made of, it is behind both our feelings and behaviour. From the intimate level of family relations to the global stage of international politics, from our attitude towards our own body to the construction of megacities - they are all regulated and formed by thinking. Past experience and future expectations are present as thoughts. All in all, the spatial and the temporal, the inner and the outer world are what thinking makes them to be.

Therefore, if we want to go to the very root of whatever problem we may have, we have to look at our thinking. As it has been summed up before, it is us who call something a problem and it's not the thing itself that says so. The raw experience without concepts is meaningless and ungraspable. It is meaningless as it has no definition and no relation to anything without names and ideas. It is ungraspable because both past and future exist only in our mind, and this present moment itself is just a theoretical measurement that cannot actually be pinpointed as anything in particular.

Thinking as a type of experience is also meaningless and ungraspable. Thoughts come and thoughts go, if we let them. However, we regularly select certain thoughts as important and substantial, concepts that are presumably relevant for us. This habit of choosing and rejecting is our conditioning, a result of past learning and repetition of similar thought patterns. The older we get the more fixed certain patterns become and they also grow in numbers, that's how we can easily cope with various situations in life, except when something unknown happens. But even in case of an event that is foreign to us we habitually try to rely on past knowledge. Only very rarely, when we are strongly forced to come up with a new perspective, do we reluctantly change our mind. In other words, the personality - a set of habitual thinking patterns - prefers the known and familiar over the unknown; it wants permanence and not change.

The illusion of stability is the basic mistake that makes us feel dissatisfied and powerless whenever we encounter change. And change is all there is. There is not a single moment of life that stays for another moment. Thus the constant struggle to project our habitual thinking on our experience and manipulate both our inner and outer world according to our preferences. In order to be free from this basic tension and existential uncertainty we need to let go of the desire to control everything. Control here means both defining, interpreting and integrating experience, and manipulating, changing and regulating the objects of perception. The wish to control is based on the belief in stability, that there are a fixed person and a fixed object.

To remove this urge to control everything we have to discover for ourselves that the reality created by our thinking is nothing else but our thoughts. Thoughts that are themselves without any meaning or substance. Once it is clearly understood and perceived that thoughts are actually ungraspable it comes naturally that the whole personality and the entire world built of and on nothing substantial. It doesn't mean that nothing exists, it's just that it doesn't exist as we have imagined it. And that makes all the difference between being stuck in habitual thought patterns and being free from the ideas of permanence. Thoughts come, thoughts go. Thoughts build personalities and worlds. It is exactly because thinking is alive and changing that construction and destruction, connecting and disconnecting, that is, life is possible.


Householder Chan

As I see it, this idea that one should be free of all attachments is a misleading one. The solution is not in reducing one's life to the bare necessities. The source of suffering is the idea of permanence, substance, meaning, importance, etc. Attachment is wanting things to be in a specific way, and that desire is based on concepts that declare what is true and what is false, what is good and what is bad ultimately. It is this projection of absolute reality that creates the duality between ordinary life and ideal life. Emptiness means that whatever supreme concept we have of ideal life is nothing but a passing thought.

It can be really difficult to know what "kleshas are bodhi" stands for. Either we are attached to something or not, there is no third option. Either we live a pure life or an impure one. But to see that this tainted realm is itself the pure land, that often feels nothing but clever sophism. What should be understood is there is nothing beyond this present reality. All humans can do are eat, shit and sleep. Whether you eat a seven course meal or a single bowl of rice makes little difference. Trouble comes one we want to force an ideal life on our ordinary one. And religious ideals are not much different from secular goals. We can dream about how sitting crossed leg facing the wall the whole day is the ultimate achievement, but that's just another false idea.

This existential unease that can drive us to philosophy and religion is the understanding that life is in general meaningless and without any real basis. The error most people make is that they look for some supreme truth beyond the present realm of experience. But as the Buddha taught, even the highest heavens are impermanent and unreliable. In other words, even the deepest meditative trance and the most wonderful realisation are meaningless and without essence.

As human beings we have bodily senses, we have emotions and we have thoughts. That's our complete realm of experience, our life. Senses, feelings and concepts are all temporary. Whether we enjoy our situation or hate it, does not matter. it will pass anyway. In fact, right in this present moment we cannot hold on to a single experience even for a millisecond. It's all inconceivable.

So, instead of labeling one idea as true and arranging, measuring, judging everything else relative to that, we need to realise that there is always a network of associations without any true centre. Our attention constantly moves from one thing to another, and whatever happens to be in the focus, that becomes our true world, our self, the most important thing ever. Ignorance comes in the moment we explain it to ourselves as the only truth, that is, we build an ideology, a personal story.

Facing everyday events may give us the desire that we want only the good states, the good moments, the good situations. Actually, that's what we and everyone else wants. This cannot be helped. This is life itself. Life without this basic intention to want the good things is an imaginary dead state. Instead what we should see is that nobody else but us label things as good and bad, we are the ones driven by our conditioning to highlight one thing and forget about the rest. That is the work of our conceptual network of associations. It's not good or bad, it's just how we are. We may not like how our nose looks like, but that's just how it is. The moment we want an ideal nose instead of the present one, we fall into a big trap. Because while we can go for surgery. our actual problem lies in this feeling of "not good". Changing the object, reshaping our nose, our mind, whatever, does not change the cause of the problem, that the present experience is labeled as not good. However, the Buddha says that it is never good, it is unsatisfactory, it is suffering. It is never good because we want it to be something else, something ideal, meaningful, substantial, self.

Chan is seeing the nature of mind, that is, the reality of our present experience. What we can easily see is that it is changing no matter what we do. If we want it not to change or change in a specific way - i.e. want the ordinary to be the ideal - we only strengthen this feeling of unease and pain. Practising Chan is the practice of not setting up and following ideologies and personal stories. However, there is no clear recipe but just a general instruction. First one has to clarify the nature of mind, then go on from there and face whatever comes on the basis of that. That is, acting without raising the mind. Then life is just ordinary.


Sudden and Gradual in Brief

In short, the basis of ignorance is conceptual attachment, that is, believing in essentially existing things and beings. From that come emotional attachments, and from that all sorts of deluded actions. One can go gradually by first restricting one's actions with the precepts, calming emotional states with meditation and eliminating false ideas through insight. Or one can go directly to the root cause, that is clinging to thoughts, and see that there is nothing to grasp. The result is the same.


Buddhism is neither Method nor Philosophy

There is the belief that Buddhism is a method, a technique, a practical teaching that can be used for one's benefit in this life, in everyday matters, in stress reduction and other psychological matters. The traditional materialisation of that attitude is in ritual activities like offering incense and prayers. The modern form is meditation. The other approach is that of those who study Buddhism as a matter of scholarly investigation or as an exotic philosophy.

The common element in both is that neither practice nor study has a personal importance for the individual, the Dharma is no different from a tool one can use for a while and then discard it. It is not integrated as the guide of one's actions. Therefore such people do not take refuge in the Triple Jewel. They grasp at the outer forms without understanding the real value of the teachings.

Let me use here as examples zazen and nenbutsu. Zazen literally means seated meditation, and nenbutsu is buddha remembrance. Both terms are as old as Buddhism itself. Originally zazen referred to the posture only that did not define the type of meditation performed, while nenbutsu was about recalling the Buddha's wonderful qualities as a way of inspiring oneself. Today zazen is regularly associated with meditation by upholding a specific posture and nenbutsu with the verbal repetition of Amida's name. But most importantly, it is the ideology that such physical activities encompass the essence of the Buddha's teaching that allows the simple shift from religious life to mundane self-help. Although there is a difference between the two that explains the popularity of nenbutsu in the traditional and zazen in the modern approach. It is that zazen promises liberation in this life while nenbutsu in the afterlife. The common element is that besides being an occasional activity they have virtually no influence on one's day to day life.

On the contrary, as ultimate teachings they were taught as life changing realisations by their famous advocates Dogen Kigen and Honen Genku. Dogen's zazen is called practice-enlightenment because it includes and accomplishes the whole path of morality, meditation and wisdom. Honen's nenbutsu guarantees birth in the Pure Land because it includes and accomplishes the three minds and the four practices. That is possible for both of them not because of the outer form, the actual activity performed by the body, but because of the mind.

In zazen it is the non-abiding awareness and in nenbutsu it is the faith in Amida's vow. The outer activities themselves are not unique to the Zen or the Pure Land school, and neither Dogen nor Honen would have had any reason to leave the Tendai school to sit or to recite. So while both are called practice oriented schools, it is not the method but the doctrine that makes them distinct from other traditions.

Since it is the mind that matters and not the activity, we could say that there is no need for the physical part. And that is partially true. Most of the Zen teachers - that is, before the times of Dahui Zonggao in China - only pointed to the nature of mind. In fact, that has been the definition of the Zen tradition since the beginning without any reference to common practices. However, while in China the heirs of Bodhidharma always lived within a Buddhist environment, Dogen separated himself from the established tradition and initiated an institutionally separate school. That way zazen became the primary representation of his style. Honen separated himself in a similar way from others and focused on recitation as the chosen expression. It is like with our thoughts, they cannot be communicated without words. The teaching has to take form and that form has to become the carrier of the teaching. And while Dogen and Honen had their respective practices selected as the most important, they did not deny or leave out other activities, like reading, reciting and copying sutras, doing prostrations, and other things. With giving a specific form to their teachings they managed to transmit them.

If one focuses only on the words, that is turning the Dharma into a study material. If one sees only the outer practice, that is turning the Dharma into gymnastics. If one knows only the meaning and has the realisation without the words and the outer practice, that is being a pratyekabuddha, where no communication is possible. But I think it is mostly a theoretical possibility and not something anyone could see or confirm (besides that they exist in the Buddhist tradition). The unity of practice and realisation, of methods and understanding, that is the real and living path of enlightenment. That unity is what zazen and nenbutsu embody according to Dogen and Honen.

So, Buddhism is neither a method nor a philosophy. When one wants to grasp the true meaning of the Dharma it takes moving away from one's previous conditioning, giving up both body and mind, and taking the teachings to one's heart. Through that transformation it becomes the living reality and not just some part time occupation between dinner and bedtime. After that every movement is zazen, every sound is the nenbutsu.