First Zen Reader Introduction

The Zen sect of Buddhism claims to transmit the special realization attained by Shakyamuni Buddha in the meditation posture under the bodhi tree at Gaya, after six years of austere spiritual practices and at the end of a long meditation (six days and nights, in one tradition). This realization freed him from all sufferings and limitations for ever. It was handed on by him to his disciple Kashyapa, and thereafter in unbroken lines through patriarchs and teachers in India, China, Korea, and Japan, transmitted “from heart to heart” as might be passed on a bowl of water without a drop being spilled. In China the sect split into a number of different lines. After dominating Buddhism for centuries it is now in decay in China but still influential in Japan. The two main surviving transmissions there are the Rinzai, which is divided into a number of subsects, and the Soto, to which about two-thirds of the Japanese temples belong.

The Rinzai and Soto agree on the main points; they differ in the stress given to certain elements in Zen, notably what is called koan. This is a sort of riddle, not completely solvable by the intellect, which is an artificial method of concentrating the energies of a spiritual student. The koan method was devised quite late in Zen history. The Rinzai emphasizes concentration on koan, especially those in the anthologies Hekiganroku and Mumonkan.

The Soto, though it has its own collection, the Shoyoroku, does not make so much of them, pointing out that the masters of the golden age of Zen in the T‘ang dynasty did not rely on artificial koan. Mostly the koan are stories about these masters, though Hakuin (1685-1768) in 18th-century Japan devised one of the most famous, the “ sound of one hand.” Even this may derive from a phrase in the Hekiganroku.

The texts here translated will give a general idea of Zen theory and practice. Except for the two extracts contained in the “Bodhidharma and the Emperor,” they are not technical Buddhist works but are for the layman. The backbone of the book is two series of lectures by two famous contemporary masters: Takashina Rosen, the present primate of the Soto sect and president of the Japan Buddhist Association, and Amakuki Sessan, a well-known master of the Rinzai sect.

The ordinary Japanese today has no deep knowledge of Buddhism, and these texts do not presuppose such knowledge. Here is a brief sketch of the Buddhist background of Zen for a reader who has never touched the subject. All the points are more fully explained in the body of the book, and the statements in this summary are not completely accurate.

The world of our experience is constantly changing; it is technically called Sansara, birth-and-death or life-and- death. Man instinctively seeks permanence in it, and so it is a constant source of suffering and disappointment to him. Our experience is, however, partly illusory. The illusion consists in taking as completely real the distinctions and limitations created by the mind. The truth of the world is Nirvana, absolutely free from distinctions and limitations, but because of ignorance (avidya) the mind experiences it as differentiated and limited. By the practice of Zen (literally “meditation” in Japanese) the confused, contrary, and upside-down notions can be discarded and Nirvana known directly. In Samadhi, the peak of meditation, distinctions vanish, and meditator and object of meditation are one.

Nirvana is beyond all definitions because it is beyond mind; it is hinted at in words like immortality, bliss, purity, and (true) selfhood. Inasmuch as a fundamental Buddhist doctrine is that things have no individual self, it is clear that selfhood does not here mean anything limited. In fact, all the terms are only provisional. Nirvana is sometimes called Sameness because it is free from all distinctions, and sometimes the Void because it is free from all conditions.

The Buddha is one who has realized that his nature is not a limited egoity but the conditionless Nirvana. Nirvana is therefore also called Buddha nature. All living beings have the Buddha nature. By practising morality, holy study, and meditation (Zen) they can awaken the wisdom (prajna) which realizes the true nature. Such realization or awakening is called in Japanese satori. It also has the sense of enlightenment. A Bodhisattva is one far advanced on the spiritual path to Buddhahood. Note, however, that the Buddha nature is already perfect within him as within all; the process is realization, not creation, of the Buddha.

There are devotional practices in some sects. Such are called “other power.”

Mahayana means the Buddhism historically associated with northern India, China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, and Mongolia. It stresses the Bodhisattva ideal of helping all to attain realization, as against the Shravakas and Pratyeka Buddhas, who are said to strive for themselves alone. Mahayana has its own scriptures (sutras).

The last Sanskrit words to explain are bodhi and karma. Bodhi, literally “enlightenment,” often means wisdom, the same as prajna. Karma means cause and effect extended to the psychological and moral realms; every detail of what happens to anybody is the result of his past actions, good following good, and evil following evil.

In these translations “heart” and “mind” generally stand for the same word in the original. This word is literally “heart” but by extension, as in English, it includes what we understand by “mind.” I have preferred the translation as heart wherever possible, because for many people mind has a cerebral connotation.

One form of Zen illness is caused by the vital energy rising uncontrolled to the head; the proper concentration is on the centre of the body. Zen master Hakuin puts extraordinary stress on this point; some meditation pictures by his disciple Torei show it diagrammatically. It is thus nearer Zen practice to speak of realizing the Buddha heart rather than the Buddha mind, at any rate for beginners.

Readers should note the special meaning of the word which has to be translated “original.” It is is explained the difference between realization-with-a-beginning and reahzation-from-the-beginning or original realization. In a similar sense should be understood such common Zen phrases as original mind, original face, original nature, and so on. If this point is grasped, many puzzles in Zen writing disappear. Related to it is the phrase “practice and realization are one”.

In the Zen of Buddhahood-from-the-begin- ning, practice is merely realization of the present fact of Buddhahood; practice is realization, not a means to create future realization of a future condition.

The Buddhism of India is not in every way the same as that of China, and again Japanese Buddhism has its own peculiarities. The differences are not small. However, the tradition is that teaching should be suited to the hearer as medicine to the patient, and the variations may be regarded as instances of Skilful Means or Hoben in Japanese. (It must be admitted that some great Japanese masters do not subscribe to the Hoben doctrine.)

Where the translated texts quote from Sanskrit or Chinese sources, I have translated according to my author’s rendering, which may not be the only one possible. In some cases where he seems to quote, the author is paraphrasing or even varying the original text. Where the author gives a Chinese original followed by a free Japanese translation, only the latter is given.

Indian names are given in an approximation to the original; such names as Shakyamuni and Ananda are familiar to the West. Most Chinese names and words are given in the way Japanese pronounce them; e.g., Rinzai and not Linchi. This may be distressing to Chinese scholars, but it seems likely that most of the material on Zen in the future will come from Japan, and a choice must be made. There is nothing sacred in the modern Mandarin pronunciation, particularly in the confusing transliteration generally adopted. The famous negative monosyllable uttered by Joshu, in reply to the question whether there is Buddha nature in the dog, is now pronounced in the Chinese standard language “wu.” But the Japanese pronunciation “mu” is nearer to Joshu’s Tang dynasty pronunciation. I am not quite consistent, for I keep such Chinese words as T‘ang and Sung for the dynasties on the ground that we know them, and that they are not Zen terms or names.

I have not indicated the long vowels in Japanese. The common words and names will no doubt be anglicized, just as judo and tycoon have been. Experience shows that the English language will not retain for long diacritical marks attached to foreign words. Japanese names are given with the surname first; e.g., in the name Oka Kyugaku, the family name is Oka, and Kyugaku is the Buddhist (what we automatically tend to call the Christian) name.

There are numerous allusions in Zen literature, some Buddhist and some to customs, history, or literature in general. For instance, the reply of Soji to Bodhidharma “It is as when Ananda had a vision of the paradise of the Buddha of the East; it appeared and then vanished,” does not mean a failure of vision. It refers to a sutra in which the Buddha creates for his disciple Ananda an appearance of the paradise in the room where they are, and when the Buddha withdraws his magic power the vision vanishes. I have translated it in this sense. To catch such allusions the student may read books on Buddhism in general; those by Dr. E. Conze can be recommended. Many of the Zen allusions will be found somewhere in the works of Dr. D. Suzuki. Inevitably some overtones will be missed. In Chinese poetry white clouds often stand for spiritual contemplation and experience. The dark rain clouds of worldly success soon vanish, but the sky is never without the high white clouds. Again, a novice in anything is associated with the colour white and an expert with black, so the “white-robed” in the Case of the White Hare has the connotation of a spiritual beginner.

In some cases where the whole point depends on a verbal play, or on an allusion cumbersome to explain, I have omitted the passage. I have also left out some pages in the “Song of Meditation” book where the author issues a warning to his countrymen, then on the brink of plunging into a disastrous war.

The texts here translated are not systematic expositions. The sentences and paragraphs are thrusts designed to awaken the sleeping prajna wisdom. When it wakes, the Buddha nature is recognized, which is from the beginning ever perfect in enlightenment and realization. This, and not discussion, is the aim of the authors.

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