Zen meditation of the Mahayana17 min read

Giving and morality and the other perfections,

Taking of the Name, repentance, discipline,

And the many other right actions,

All come back to the practice of meditation.

IN THESE lines the right actions are reviewed, and it is taught that the Zen meditation of the Mahayana is the highest of them. It is the peak of the Mahayana, so great, so profound, that all merit comes back to it. The master of the Zuiganji temple at Matsushima, famous for its scenery, wrote a poem which became well-known:

Beneath the skies there are mountains and streams;

Each has one kind of beauty for its own.

But those beauties all come back to the beauty of Matsushima—

Beneath the skies there are no other mountains and streams. It is like this with the Mahayana Zen meditation. To say that all other right actions come back to it may seem like a vulgar boast of the Zen sect. But Hakuin had no sectarian narrowness in him, and he is teaching from the standpoint of the whole Mahayana. When he says that all deeds of merit go back to Zen meditation, his meaning is that they cannot exist without it. Unless they have this as their root and spring from this, they have no real meaning. All true acts of merit are included in meditation; it is their parent and they are born from it. Zen master Shoichi says: “Meditation is the way to the great liberation. All righteousness flows from it; all the actions find their consummation here; wisdom and divine inspiration are bom from it; the life of man and of heaven derives from it.” And again: “What is called Zen is the Buddha heart. Morality is its outer form; taking the Name is a means to it. Their Samadhi all comes from the Buddha heart. For this reason the Zen practice is the root of the others.”

Hakuin refers to giving and morality and the other perfections. There are six perfections of the Bodhisattva, but these and the practice of the Name and the other meritorious deeds all go back to meditation. Or rather, when they come from meditation, then alone they are truly deeds of merit. In the Shodoka poem of Yoka Daishi, he says:

When suddenly he awakens to the Buddha’s Zen,

The six perfections and the ten thousand right actions are found perfect within him.

Although the act be the same, if the basis is wrong and the source tainted, what is normally a particularly good action may become no good action at all. It becomes hypocrisy, a trick, nothing at all. In the Zen phrase, water drunk by the cow becomes milk, and drunk by the snake becomes poison. The same water becomes in the former pure milk and benefits others, and in the latter a terrible poison and harms others. This is a significant statement.

The six perfections are: giving, morality, endurance, energy, meditation (Zen), and wisdom. The Sanskrit word for such perfection is paramita, which means attaining the far shore. The sense is that of leaving this shore of illusion and attaining the further shore of enlightenment; leaving this shore of empirical experience and attaining the far shore of the ideal. The boat of the perfections crosses the great river between the two shores. The practice of the six perfections is essential for the Bodhisattva to attain Buddha- hood. Bodhisattva means in Sanskrit one whose mind is in enlightenment. He has awakened from the dream of illusions; he treats the interests of others as his own; above, he seeks wisdom, and below, he engages himself in helping all.

This is a special being, advanced on the path of wisdom, who nevertheless turns to labour in every way for the good of all. So we too must rouse in ourselves the Bodhisattva spirit of aspiration combined with service.

The first perfection is giving. It has not just the superficial and narrow meaning of contributing money to some temple, as people think. It means practice of benevolence, love, compassion, and virtue, and is of three kinds: giving things, giving truth by teaching, and giving fearlessness by inspiring another with courage and strength.

The second perfection is morality or conduct which avoids the wrong and performs the right. This is the foundation of human life, and without it no one can live as he should. There are five commandments binding on all, monks and laymen alike:

Not to kill: to protect the life of living things.

Not to steal: to respect the distinction between one’s own and another’s, and what is for all and what is private.

Not to commit adultery: to abstain from wantonness.

Not to lie: to keep words and actions in consonance.

Not to become intoxicated: always to keep the mind composed.

These five can be reduced to three: to abstain from wrong, to do right, and to exert oneself for the world and other people.

The third perfection is endurance. It means the strong fortitude by which one can be patient whether things go well or against him.

The fourth perfection is energy, which is sustained exertion, a spirit which never turns back.

The fifth is Zen meditation, which means silencing the thought and looking within. The word is the same, but this perfection of Zen meditation (Zenjo) is just one of the six perfections and so distinct from the others, whereas the

Mahayana Zen meditation is something absolute, and includes all perfections.

The sixth perfection is wisdom, the power of clear penetration. In Sanskrit the word is prajna, and the perfection of wisdom is prajnaparamita, which is seeing all things and the truth behind them, as they really are. The six perfections are the great principles, the great virtues, without which we cannot live as real men. The path of the Bodhisattva is the path of a real man. Let us set out the perfections from this point of view.

Giving: that we join together for mutual help.

Morality: that we join together to preserve the social order.

Endurance: that we remain strong in patience in the face of anything that comes.

Energy: that we work in earnest at the task before us.

Zen meditation: that we attain unshakable conviction.

Wisdom: that we act on a right view of the things of the world.

Hakuin mentions taking the holy Name, repentance, and discipline. Nembutsu or taking the holy Name of Buddha can be either mental repetition of the Name or audible repetition. The Nembutsu of the self-power schools is mainly mental, by Zen meditation looking to the Buddha or Bodhisattva within and turning in prayer to him. In the Nembutsu of the other-power schools, the holy Name is repeated audibly. Since it is endowed with all virtues and right actions, the man repeating it naturally receives the Buddha wisdom and becomes a Buddha. Whether mentally or verbally, the mere taking of the Name is of great spiritual efficacy.

I will add here a word about self-power and other-power. There are those who think of them as opposed to each other and incompatible. But fundamentally the Way can never be two. The culmination of faith is the experience in which the Buddha and oneself become one. In bringing about this oneness, the other-power school puts the Buddha on that side, and then by the power of the holy Name leaves this side and enters the Buddha, becoming one with him. In the self-power school, we first purify our own hearts by Zen meditation, and then invite the Buddha to this side to become one with us. There is the formal distinction between going and receiving, but as the host and guest become identified there is no real difference. From the point of view of the world of form, for us to go there is not the same as inviting the Buddha here, but in the formless world there cannot be any difference between them. We must know that the Samadhi of oneness is the goal of faith.

Now as to repentance, which means to correct our past wrong-doing. It is very important in the spiritual life, and there is no religious school that does not lay stress on it. Repentance is one of the glories of religion, so much so that one could say that apart from religion there is no real repentance.

The six perfections such as giving and morality, and the taking of the Name and repentance and discipline and so many other good actions of great spiritual value, all come back to the Zen meditation of the Mahayana. Or rather, they are born of it.

Looking at the world today, one would like to urge at least just the practice of giving. So many people simply want to get from others, to take or even to rob; they hardly think of giving, of being kind, of helping. With this attitude it is very illogical to expect peace and prosperity. If we want to get, let us first give; nay, to give for the sake of getting is already only utilitarianism. The perfection of giving is to give what one has—the wealthy to give money, the wise to give wisdom, the strong to give their strength. Until the day when we become true givers we need not hope for real peace or success in life. But these days the rich man keeps his capital, and the man of education makes that education his capital, and the strong man makes that strength his capital, and they all use it to try to make a profit out of others. A real giver would not consider his means, but would practise giving at any time and place. The merit in a gift is not necessarily proportionate to the value of the gift or the amount. The old saying is, better the single light of the poor man than the thousand lamps of the rich man. The merit lies only in. the sincerity. The principle of giving is to give joyfully from a feeling of sympathy, free from any desire for name or a return of some kind. And if there is nothing to give? If the circumstances do not permit us to give, then let us rejoice in a gift made by others. Such rejoicing at the welfare of the receiver of the gift is declared by the sutras to surpass in merit even giving itself. Surely at least we can be glad at the happiness of another?

Which would we prefer, a simple cup of tea offered with sincerity, or dainties of mountain and ocean served with vulgar ostentation or as business entertainment? Surely the tea. The trouble is that as soon as they hear this, people think that they may as well never serve anything but just a cup of tea—with full sincerity of course—instead of going to all the trouble of making a meal for the guests! Economically it would have many advantages—a sort of austerity programme when business is not too good—so why not kill two birds with one stone and take up this “tea-ism”? But the man who can put real sincerity into serving a cup of tea is the very man who will do everything possible besides. O people of today! Rich man, influential man, clever man, strong man—be ready each to give what you have for the good of all. Or at least when you see others giving, do not begrudge it in your hearts. That society where people know how to give will have perfect peace and prosperity.

While we are subject to the passions of the three poisons and the five desires, our giving and morality and the other perfections, our taking of the Name and repentance and

discipline and the other good deeds, are only a fair form and have no real meaning. This is why we must bring them back to the Zen meditation. For instance, there are various ways of taking the Name, or Nembutsu as it is technically called. A young man criticized his grandmother, who used to recite the formula of the holy Name, Namu Amida Butsu (reverence to Amitabha Buddha):

Morning and evening the Name is clearly heard,

But all mixed up with nagging—what an empty Nembutsu! The old lady came back at him:

Morning and evening the Nembutsu is for the ear of the holy Buddha,

The scoldings with it are for the family!

What a pair!

How different from Saint Shinran’s “The repetition of the Name may cause me to fall into hell; the repetition of the Name may cause me to enter paradise. Shinran is not concerned with either.”

Saint Ippen, when he was training under his teacher, was given the mantra Namu Amida Butsu as a koan. He practised the Samadhi of the Nembutsu and then presented his view to the teacher in this verse:

When I recite it, there is neither myself nor Buddha;

Namu Amida Butsu—only the voice remains.

The teacher did not give his approval to this, and Ippen plunged himself again in his spiritual exercises. Then he produced another verse:

When I recite it, there is neither myself nor Buddha;

Namu Amida Butsu, Namu Amida Butsu!

Tradition says this verse was approved. In either verse the first line is well, but if we say the voice remains then the existence of the voice means a distinction between the man who recites the name and the Buddha whose name is recited, and real Samadhi is yet far away. In the second version, the object and the self have become one in Samadhi. Yet another last line has been proposed:

When I recite it, there is neither myself nor Buddha;

The water-bird is splashing in the water of the pond.

This too has a flavour of its own.

The essence of human life is not robbing each other but helping, not dictatorship but mutual aid. People who can give cheerfully, quietly, with a friendly smile, are people whose life has a meaning. “Fortune enters through the smiling gate.” The one who can live with a smile, without needing any fortune coming from elsewhere, is himself the god of fortune. Compared with this how tasteless is modem life—restless, discontented, and yet sluggish.

Irritable, easily angered, and always in a bad humour, dissatisfied with oneself and persecuting others, what can be worse than this sort of life? The sutras warn us how the fire of anger can burn up a forest of merit; though our merits and right actions are piled high as a mountain, one flash of anger can burn them all up. Wrath is the most terrible thing in the world. Hakuin wrote a short essay on anger in which he says: “That man in whom the truth is bright has no anger. When truth is obscured, anger arises. Mostly it arises when we are crossed, and ceases when our desires are met. In the world all is as it should be. If one crosses me, it is my own fault; there is already a fault in myself. How should I ignore the fault in myself and become angry at him? When I am angry with him, my fault is doubled.” It is rightly said. To become angry is to proclaim one’s mental darkness, to expose one’s fault.

Still, joy and anger, grief and pleasure are instinctive feelings, and it must be admitted they are hard to suppress. Then instead of directing our anger outwards we should direct it inwards and turn it on ourselves. Let us rage and storm at our own ineffective snivelling, at our sins, at our stupidity. In olden days Abbot Jimyo, sitting in meditation day and night through the bitter winter, found himself often invaded by the demon of sleep. He took a gimlet and drove it into his thigh with the words: “The light of the ancient Sages was made great through piercing sufferings. Alive to achieve nothing, and to die unknown to any, what use is such a life?” Is this not a moving story? To turn the anger within is the foundation of noble achievement.

Again, if we are to be angry, then let us put aside mere peevishness or feminine tantrums and be really angry. It is said that the philosopher-sage Mencius only once became angry, but then the whole country was pacified. In Japanese history there is the case of the Emperor Meiji, who became angry only once, but then he assumed command of the armed forces and at once established peace. In Chinese history is the well-known case of the humble and modest Pin Shojo, who went as envoy to confront the tyrant, and in his anger took unopposed and brought back the stolen jade.

Nevertheless, such cases are few, and anger generally means failure. In ordinary life we should not proclaim our own stupidity, but consider our shortcomings and be magnanimous and patient. In the Upasaka Sutra or sutra for laymen it is said: “Patient endurance is the real cause of enlightenment. The Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi or peerless wisdom is the fruit of this patience.” Another sutra says that the man who can practise patient endurance is the real hero. Anger finally turns into hatred, into jealousy, into cursing against life, and there is no knowing where its poison will stop. It is a fearful thing. There are some old songs of the Way:

When the other draws the sword of injustice,

Let it come to rest in the sheath of onefs own heart.

Though hated, do not return hate,

For hating and hating again there will be no end.

Look! The rice assailed by fire and water

Is patient, and becomes cooked.

Oh that sigh!

It is a carpenter’s plane That pares away your life.

Patient endurance is gold. A patient man has courage to bear whatever comes. Nowadays people lack patience; they are always saying they cannot go through with things. And this restlessness and discontent is the enemy of happiness and success. The people are cherishing mistaken grudges against each other and are uneasy with each other. Thus they invite sufferings. The old saying is, make difficulties thy treasure; work and patience are the foundation of success.

There is a ray of hope even for a country in ruins. In the very abyss of despair there is the gleam of a jewel. Without tribulation of body and mind a good knight will hardly be made; without manure a good crop will hardly grow; without fatigue in all the limbs the work will hardly be done well; without contesting every point a good bargain will hardly be obtained.

There is a painting by Zen master Sengai, in his usual unconventional style and splendid brushwork, showing a man in the prime of life with his shoulders high and eyes aglare, a picture of fury. To this he has written a poem: “Anger is the great treasure of thy house. Hide it deep and do not bring it out recklessly.” Anger must be our jewel, our great treasure. Surely it must be locked safely in the depths of the vault. If necessary, once a year it may be looked at for an airing. But to bring a diamond into the kitchen to cut up the vegetables is a misuse of something precious, and displays total lack of understanding. There is another old picture which shows merely a perfect circle, and the poem reads:

The rounded pearl of thy character~

Let it have one irregularity.

If quite round, it will roll too easily.

When we accept life and the truth behind life and put down our anger, turning it within to spur us on, when we go forward in patience, there is peace in all the worlds. For yesterday, forgetting; for today, rejoicing; for tomorrow, bliss. Or as the Zen saying is, satisfaction with the past, gratitude for the present, and spiritual energy for the future. This is the spiritual attitude to the three states of time. The power of the Zen meditation of the Mahayana is necessary as the basis so that we can live our every day like this.