The Zen meditation of the Mahayana
Is beyond all our praise.
These two lines are the central pivot of the Song of Meditation. Mahayana is a Sanskrit word meaning “great vehicle’ Hakuin here refers to meditation, which is the peak of the Mahayana, or Buddhism of the Great Vehicle. When it is experienced, the darkness of ignorance clears up of itself, the spiritual light of realization of truth appears, and endless blessings are manifested. There are four famous phrases attributed to Bodhidharma:
Direct pointing to the human heart;
Seeing the nature and becoming Buddha;
Not standing on letters;
A separate transmission outside the scriptures.
The direct pointing to the heart of man leads to seeing the nature and becoming Buddha. It cannot be written in letters or taught in scriptures; transmission from heart to heart is the basis of Bodhidharma’s Zen.
An important point to notice first is that though there are innumerable paths in Buddhism suited to the different circumstances of the people, they can be broadly classified under the paths of the Great Vehicle and those of the Small Vehicle. The former are said to be for those in whom wisdom is already to some extent manifest, and the latter for those who have not yet attained it. Zen or meditation again is of different kinds: there is Zen of the mystics outside Buddhism, there is Zen of the Small Vehicle schools, there is the ordinary man’s Zen, and there is also bogus Zen. But here we are speaking of the highest peak, Mahayana Zen, of which it is said that it is peerless and beyond all praise. The darkness clears, and the blessings become manifest of themselves. As to these blessings, the Song will refer to them later, but the real virtue of Zen meditation, its special glory, must be what is called wisdom-power. Wisdom-power is not something miraculous, but it means things being what they really are, that we see them as they really are and handle them as they really are.
To see everything as it truly is, and to bring it to life and use it in absolute freedom. It doesn’t mean those old stories of miracles like the legendary colt coming out of the wine gourd, or the world being made in seven days, or a baby being bom from the side of the mother. These things are supposed to be examples of spiritual power, but to take them as such is a big mistake. In the truth there is nothing miraculous. The spiritual power of Zen means to live in the ordinary way all day, but without any check or hindrance, bright as a mirror is bright, smoothly as a ball running across a tray, without any sticking or hanging back. As when the ice is melted there is no congealing or stillness, so the man of realization lives an ordinary life, but with infinite freedom, released from all restrictions.
The secret of seeing things as they are is to take off our coloured spectacles. That being-as-it-is, with nothing extraordinary about it, nothing wonderful, is the great wonder. The ability to see things normally is no small thing; to be really normal is unusual. In that normality begins to bubble up inspiration. When rarely by chance a deformed child is bom, many people wonder at it, and there is a great to-do among the neighbours. (Of course nothing is really chance.) But in a way it is equally unusual when something hardly ever happens or it hardly ever doesn’t happen. It is even more wonderful that millions of men, without any blue-print from anyone, are bom in the same human form. When we can see the great wonder where there is nothing “wonderful,” when we can see the great beauty in the unbeautiful, everything begins to radiate spiritual light. Zen gives spiritual flavour to everyday food and drink in the same way that the popular Aji-no-moto essence is used in every family to bring out the flavour of our food. As a matter of fact, it is not so much that Zen gives flavour to things; the things have that taste of Zen, that seed of infinity, already in them. It is only necessary to see things with the Zen eye. The poor painter gets the shape and form right, but cannot, as they say, paint the flowers so that we smell them or paint the waterfall so that we hear it. It is Zen which gives scent and sound to the picture of the universe and brings everything to life.
The Emperor Koshu of the Southern Sung dynasty asked Zen master Engo Kokugon about the peak of Zen attainment, and he replied; “When the emperor with benevolence and piety maintains the peace, every comer of the empire enjoys illumination. Grass, trees, and insects too have each their place. This is the way transmitted by Buddhas and patriarchs, and apart from this there is no other way. If there should be some other way, it is not the way of the Buddhas and patriarchs.” When the emperor rules with benevolence and piety, the people become sincere and loyal in carrying out their duties, and the empire can be at peace. In this is the savour of life, in this is the scent. Modern men have forgotten this clear way, the normal natural way, and there arise confusion and fever and unrest. The way of Zen teaches spiritual action of the mind-essence, the ability to see heaven and earth as they really are, and then heaven and earth become radiant, and paradise appears.
As to how the secret is to be discovered, there is a suggestive passage of question and answer in the No play called Hoka So (The Renunciate Priests), in which the two brothers, as priests, are asked about Zen.
“From what patriarch do the renunciate priests receive their Zen? I would hear the doctrine of your sect.”
“Our doctrine is a special transmission outside the scriptures, and though we speak, it remains unspoken. It is not taught by teaching; to produce words and phrases is to fall into scripture-making; to take a stand on letters is to betray the doctrine. But from the fluttering of a leaf you can know the movement of the wind.”
“Truly this is interesting. And what of the koan of zazenr
“Going within, to plumb the abyss; going out, to delight in Samadhi.”
“And of the doctrine that this body is the Buddha?”
“Where the white clouds are thick, the golden dragon sports.”
“If we dwell in life-and-death? …”
“The round of suffering.”
“And as to the road aloft?”
“Cut all to pieces!”
Here there is a brief break connected with the action of the plot, but the speaker continues later:
“Not to lament, whether the root or stem be great or small;
Not to choose whether the law be kept or broken;
Not to fall into either being or not being—
This is the sign by which all become Buddhas.”
Zen is not a picture of a thing but confronting the thing itself. It is not a theoretical conclusion but grasping reality. The Sixth Patriarch in one of his discourses says: “What is zazen or sitting-in-meditation? On this path there are no obstacles or impediments. In the outer world of good and evil, when not a thought arises in the mind, that is called za (sitting). Inwardly to see one’s own nature and not be moved, that is called Zen (meditation).
“What is called Zenjo (meditation and Samadhi)? Without, to be separated from form, is called Zen; within, to have no disturbance, is called Samadhi. If outwardly we stick to a form then the mind is disturbed, and if we are separated from form the mind is not disturbed. The original nature is naturally pure and naturally in Samadhi, but to be consciously seeing that state is itself a disturbance. If in witnessing any state the mind does not move, this is the real Samadhi. Without, to be separated from form is already Zen; within, not to be disturbed is already Samadhi; outward Zen and inward Samadhi—this is Zen.”
The Sutra of the Net of Brahma has an interesting passage: “The original nature is from the beginning naturally pure. If in the midst of all thoughts we see the original nature as pure, then by this natural discipline and natural practice, the Buddha way is naturally accomplished.”
The Sixth Patriarch, when asked about Zen, replied: “Without thinking of good, without thinking of evil, now what is your original face?” When we can perceive directly that original face, we attain the secret of Zen naturally. The Sixth Patriarch forces on us the necessity of grasping the original “I,” or what is philosophically called the inmost true Self.
The “sound of one hand” is a koan devised by Hakuin himself. Essentially this koan, and the Sixth Patriarch’s “original face,” are intended to smash the basis of our common-sense experience which relies on logic. A fundamental breaking up is essential for establishing the new spiritual Zen outlook. The original face sounds as if it might be something seen with the eye, and the sound of one hand something rather to be heard, but their ultimate object is the same. It is that we may open the secret storehouse of the mind and obtain the inexhaustible treasure in it. Verily the sound of the one hand is resounding through heaven and earth and beyond; the original face is resplendent before heaven and earth are separated, and after space itself ceases to exist.
Zen is the supreme product of Far Eastern culture, but the one thing on which it prides itself is the systematic training of the mind, to manifest the secret and so attain realization. Its system and training (and also the final attainment) take a different form from those of other mystical schools. In particular it has the special methods of za- zen and koan. Of course to practise zazen, or to wrestle with a koan, may not be absolutely essential to realization, but these are the quickest and the surest methods.
What is obtained by practising Zen? It cannot be acquiring something which is not already possessed. All that can be said is that, as to himself, he sees and realizes that ‘‘the eyes are on each side and the nose in the middle,” and as to the world, he sees directly that the flowers are red and the willows green. The world changes. I catch the thief and find it is my own son. The demon of yesterday now is coming to pray. Zen master Rinzai tells us: “Not being tainted by life-and-death, free in action, not seeking anything special, it is attained of itself.” Purity and freedom, the experience of non-egoity, are revealed.
Abbot Daiko of Daitokuji temple made a painting of a hyotan or wine-gourd and on it wrote this poem:
O buoyant one! Not of true melon rank,
Not fresh and cool to eat like your cousin the water-melon, Yet you are light, being emptied of desires,
And the mountain sages make you their companion,
Fill you with wine and carry you at their waist.
You brought forth the colt in the fairy story—’twas your sport;
Though of melon sort} you do not suffer under the kitchen knife—tis your wisdom;
When with you they try to catch the slippery catfish, you let it escape—tis your benevolence;
You were the badge on the horse of great Hideyoshi—tis your bravery.
Are you not praiseworthy?
The freedom of non-egoity must also be attached to spiritual action:
Even the wine gourd which lives life so lightly,
Has a cord tied round its waist to hold it.
Zen is called the peerless doctrine of the Buddhas, the teaching that spiritualizes all, the Buddha-heart doctrine, the teaching of the source of the mind. As it is the holy way of all the Buddhas, it is the way of liberation for us. Wisdom is the root of it, and compassion the conclusion. The spiritual action which brings all to spirituality, to goodness, to virtue, cannot be expressed by pen or tongue or thought, but is something that has to be experienced for oneself.
In olden times the T‘ang Emperor Koso asked of a sage who was practising the Way in the mountains: “You are always living in the depths of the mountains. What happiness is there in such places?” To which the man of the mountains replied in a verse:
What is there in the mountains?
In the mountains the white clouds are many.
But this is something you have to enjoy by coming your- self.
I cannot take them and present them to you.
“What is the happiness in the mountains?,, asks the emperor. “Why, Your Majesty, in the mountains are those long-sought white clouds. Morning and evening they wrap me round and bring serenity to my heart. But this joy is mine alone, because it is something that has to be experienced for oneself Ah, the white clouds! I should like to put them in a box and present them to you, but it cannot be done. They cannot be caught and given to another, so unfortunately. . . With these words he brings out clearly the disadvantages of high rank. Confucius also pointed to independence and not being under the control of another, when he said: “Eating coarse food and drinking water, with the bent elbow for a pillow—there is yet happiness in these things.” What was the origin of Zen? Long ago when the Buddha was with the assembed listeners on Vulture Peak, a great Brahmin offered him a golden flower which he took and in silence showed to the assembly. Among the eighty thousand men and gods none took his meaning except Kashyapa, whose face broke into a smile.
The Buddha at once said: “I have the treasure of the eye of the true doctrine, the spiritual heart of Nirvana, the great truth that the real form is no form; and now it is with Kashyapa.” So it was transmitted to Kashyapa, from heart to heart, teacher and pupil face to face. Such was the beginning of Zen. Buddhist sects in India and later in China and Japan take their stand on the scriptures and have each their authoritative texts, but Zen alone has no special text, for it transmits the Buddha heart which cannot be expressed in a text, and so it is also called the Buddha-heart sect. From Shakyamuni Buddha to Kashyapa, Kashyapa to Ananda in succession, at last it reached the twenty-eighth Bodhidharma. He carried it to China, where he became the First Patriarch, the second being Eka, the third Sosan, the fourth Doshin, the fifth Konin, and the sixth Eno. It came later to Japan where it was handed down, and one line came to Hakuin.
We have to really study and really go into the meaning of the flower and the smile in the assembly on the mountain. Not Zen alone, but beauty in any form makes words fail. Many are the poems and songs about the beauty of the cherry-blossoms of Yoshino, and the landscape of Matsushima, but the best, which express the supreme beauty most perfectly, are these:
“This, oh this!”
Was all I could say,
Before the flowers of Yoshino.
And of Matsushima:
Ah, Matsushima! Matsushima!
There is no way of telling about beauty.
Even if we manage to say something it falls short.
To the one who has not seen,
What shall I say
Of the shore of Suma?
For when one sees it One can find no words.
So the Mahayana meditation is beyond all our praise, because there are no words. Call it spiritual flavour, spiritual way, wonderful principle, or wonderful law, the essence of holy teaching—but it is the absolute state where the four statements are left behind and the hundred negations excluded, where words end and the working of the mind is extinguished (Plate 7). This state has to be known in oneself by oneself. Yet it is not something difficult, not something hidden, not something distant. Before one’s eyes, by one’s side, clearly it is revealed in its purity and majesty. Let us open our eyes. It is only opening the eyes. The poem of realization by Sotoba runs:
The sound of the valley stream is His great tongue,
The colours of the mountains are His pure body.
In the night I have heard the eighty-four thousand hymns,
But how to tell the people the next day?
After long years of training, going deeper into Zen without relapsing, one day realization appears, and this poem expresses the experience of that moment. The voice of the waterfall is the great sermon of the Buddha, the colours of those mountains are the Buddha’s pure truth-body.
Throughout the night is the unbroken sermon of the truth- body teaching the eighty-four thousand gates of the Law. Alas, that peak of joy, that state of bliss cannot be expressed or told to others. How sublime the teaching, how noble the truth! And the water of that doctrine is bathing us, the flowers of that truth are blooming in profusion before our eyes. The way is near, the thing is easy. “Look down where you stand!” is the spear-thrust of the Zen master.
One day Bodhidharma said to his disciples that the day had come for him to return to India, and told each to bring forward what he had to offer. Dofuku said: “As I see it, it is not employing words nor abandoning them, but directly using the Way.” A high view indeed.
Bodhidharma said: “You have my skin.”
The nun Soji said: “As I understand it, it is as when Ananda had a vision of the paradise of the Buddha of the East; it appeared and then vanished.” This is also a noteworthy view.
Bodhidharma said: “You have my flesh.”
Doiku said: “The four great elements are empty, and the five aggregates non-existent. According to my view, there is nothing to be obtained; words and phrases are cut off and the working of the mind disappears.”
This is a high transcendental view.
Bodhidharma said: “You have my bones.”
Last came Eka, who just stood before the master, made a reverence, and went back to his place without a word of discussion or any phrase presenting his view. As we picture him standing in the state of no-mind, coming before the teacher, bowing his head, and then quietly resuming his place, what can be said? I cannot restrain my tears of reverence for him. He indeed had attained the end.
Bodhidharma said: “You have my marrow.”
With these words he invested him with the succession as the Second Patriarch in China.
We are ceaselessly resdess for some truth or absolute. We yearn to discover some god or Buddha. But in fact, which one of those four disciples of Bodhidharma is our own state? Is it not true that we do not even have the skin? To get pure water one must dig deeply and not go wandering about.
In the Vimalakirti Sutra there is a discussion on nonduality, and in it the story of Vimalakirti’s “silence like thunder.” What the sutra calls non-duality is the main point of Buddhism, the essence of the sutras and the peak of Mahayana. Non-dual means not two. By non-duality, duality is resolved and becomes not two. But it is not that it becomes altogether one. Two but not two, one but not one, two and yet one, one and yet two, it can be called neither one nor two. Distinctions are themselves sameness, sameness is itself distinctions—this is the truth of the universe. To experience that truth is the object of Mahayana meditation. In the sutra there is a discussion on non-duality among the Bodhisattvas. Thirty-one of them put forward their views, and finally Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, was asked to speak. He said: “As to the truth of things, what can be said? For there are no words. If it were taught in words, the truth would be obscured. The world of truth cannot be expressed by words.” The whole company turned to Vimalakirti and entreated him with his matchless eloquence to express the truth of non-duality. All listened with strained attention for him to speak. He closed his mouth firmly and would not open it. There was only silence. Yet this was a great expression of truth, beyond all words, and it became famous as Vimalakirti’s “silence like thunder.” Verily throughout the ages the great teaching of non-duality is reverberating through heaven and earth. Never is the Way two; to the master the Way is one only.
© Trevor Leggett