The Approach and Intent of Zen | An Excerpt from The Rinzai Zen Way

Understanding the Rinzai Zen Way

Rinzai Zen Way

Studying Zen, one rides all vehicles of Buddhism; practicing Zen, one attains awakening in a single lifetime.
—Eisai

 

[From a teisho given in February 2012]

In speaking with many beginning Zen students, it seems apparent that although they may be familiar with some of the methods of Zen practice, what is often lacking is an understanding of the overall approach and intent of the Zen way. Without this understanding it will be difficult to follow the path of our practice and arrive at its fruition. For this reason, I want to speak simply about these things in a manner that is easy to grasp.

The Description of What Zen Is

Bodhidharma handed down to us a famous four-line description of what Zen is. I should say this description is attributed to Bodhidharma since we do not know whether it originally comes from him. But the important thing is that these lines express Zen’s understanding of itself, so they should be understood by those of us who are Zen practitioners.

But the important thing is that these lines express Zen’s understanding of itself, so they should be understood by those of us who are Zen practitioners.

The four lines are as follows:

A separate transmission outside the scriptures.
Not dependent upon words or letters.
Direct pointing at the human mind.
Seeing one’s nature and becoming Buddha.

Let us take a look at each of these lines.

A separate transmission outside the scriptures means that the lifeblood of Zen practice lies within the relationship between teacher and student. Our way, though it does not conflict with the essential meaning of the sutras, is not actualized through them. How is it actualized? Within your own body, and specifically through the joining together of your mind with that of your teacher. This vital human relationship within which Zen is transmitted and made to live is what “outside the scriptures” affirms.

Not dependent upon words or letters means that while the sutras, commentaries, records of the Zen patriarchs and other Buddhist writings all point to the awakening and its actualization, which are the Zen path, these texts (as well as writings of value from other traditions) must ultimately be viewed as descriptions of awakening or realization. That is to say, one might not be able to awaken simply by reading the descriptions. They are hints, pointers, maps. But they are not themselves to be relied upon or set up as sufficient, except inasmuch as you are able to make them come alive within your own body.

In other words, all of these writings arose out of someone’s actual experience and are attempts to explain and describe that experience. This is important and crucial and helpful. These things have great usefulness on the path. In the course of Zen practice, we especially use the sutras and other writings to check our insight; at some point in our training, we must ensure that our experience is in accord with what has been written in the past. However, that insight itself must first be arrived at experientially in our own bodies, rather than intellectually.

These first two lines, then, reveal Zen’s general approach: the transmission of Zen occurs “mind to mind” within the vital, intimate relationship between teacher and student. Furthermore, the wisdom to which Zen points—and the path of its embodiment—may be described within the Buddhist writings but will not be completed through intellectual understanding alone.

Seeing One’s Nature

This last point reminds me of an opportunity I had to participate in an interfaith dialogue at a Catholic center. Our focus was specifically the modern dialogue between Buddhist and Catholic monastics, which had been pioneered by Thomas Merton. While preparing for this event, I read something I had never known about Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian and philosopher. Near the end of his life, while performing mass, it is said that Aquinas heard the voice of Christ speaking to him. Christ, expressing that he was well pleased with Aquinas, asked him what he desired. Aquinas replied, “Only you, Lord,” negating and dropping himself completely.

At that moment, Aquinas had a deeply transforming experience. He was later unable to describe it but refused to continue working and writing in the normal manner. When asked to do so, he declared, “Everything I have written now seems to me as straw.”

I found this story moving. It reminded me of Tokusan, who wrote a commentary on the Diamond Sutra and, packing this on his back, traveled to southern China, intending to discredit the Zen teachings. Upon experiencing his own breakthrough, however, he burned his treasured treatise, saying, “Even if we have mastered all the profound teachings, it is no more than a single hair in the vastness of space.”

Truly, all else pales before the actual experience of awakening. Yet until we arrive at that intimate knowledge, how easy it is to delude ourselves into thinking that we understand what Zen is. If even people of great ability and potential like Tokusan have fallen into such traps, how much more so each of us must be careful not to rest satisfied with a shallow understanding.

Truly, all else pales before the actual experience of awakening. Yet until we arrive at that intimate knowledge, how easy it is to delude ourselves into thinking that we understand what Zen is.

The Actual Approach of Zen Practice and the Intent of the Zen Way

Now let us consider the second pair of Bodhidharma’s lines, which reveal the actual approach of Zen practice and affirm the intent of the Zen way.

Direct pointing at the human mind refers to the many skillful means by which Zen students are led to kensho, the recognition of one’s true nature—that is, the nature of one’s mind as not different from what is meant by Buddha—which is the entrance gate of Zen. We may say that fundamentally it is the Zen teacher’s job to cause the student to discover this intrinsic wisdom.

There are many examples of such direct pointing in Zen writings. Rinzai said, “Upon this lump of red flesh [that is, within your own body] is the true human being of no rank. It is constantly moving in and out of the gates of your face. Those of you who have not seen it, look!” The Sixth Patriarch said, “Thinking of neither good nor evil [that is, putting down the habit of dualistic seeing], what is your original face?”

From the day you begin your Zen training, you receive many such “direct pointings” through various means depending on the ability and style of the teacher. All the many forms of our practice—the ways we are taught to move, walk, and sit; the ways in which the sounds of instruments and voices are used; encounters with our teachers—can be methods of direct pointing. A good teacher, in fact, is constantly pointing out the essential meaning of Zen to you.

Of course, we are not all sharp enough to catch it right away. We may have many obstructions to awakening, which can be physical, energetic, conceptual, and so on. So at the same time that we are receiving many forms of direct pointing, we may also learn various practices to dissolve our obstructions. Again, it is fundamentally the Zen teacher’s job to prescribe such practices that fit our situations.

The fourth line begins with the words Seeing one’s nature—that is, awakening to the nature of mind. This is the moment when we actually do recognize that which is constantly being pointed out to us. Deep or shallow, this turning around of the light of awareness to recognize one’s “original face” marks the entrance into Zen. This is kensho.

Before kensho, we do commonly say that we practice Zen. But in truth we should know that we have not yet actually, in our own existence, affirmed Zen. It is more accurate at that point to say we are doing Buddhist practice. But it is not yet really Zen.

Before kensho, we do commonly say that we practice Zen. But in truth we should know that we have not yet actually, in our own existence, affirmed Zen. It is more accurate at that point to say we are doing Buddhist practice. But it is not yet really Zen.

And what happens when we have indeed passed through this gate of kensho? Everything is fine, right? No, not yet. There is still the second half of this last line: becoming Buddha. These final words call us not only to give testament to the truth of our nature, which is boundless, but also to fully actualize this awakening, to integrate it, to embody it, and so to realize all the activities of body, speech, and mind in accord with it.

Only such embodiment is what we call “becoming Buddha.” Simply having the recognition of our nature does not mean that we have actualized the full fruition of awakening. The lifelong practice of liberation, which is the real meat and core of the Zen way, still lies ahead. Certainly, though, having gained the confidence of our own experience, we may expect our faith, our energy, and our commitment to deepen from the moment we enter the gate of Zen awakening. This is a special quality of the Zen approach, which takes awakening as both the entrance to the path and the path itself.

This concludes a brief summary of Zen’s general approach and intent. It is not difficult to understand this. It is not even particularly difficult to enter the gate of kensho. But to actualize kensho along the lifelong path of liberation can, in fact, be quite difficult.

How to do it, then? Simply follow the instructions of your teacher, give yourself body and mind to the training, and follow the path of practice that has been clearly laid out by the masters of the past. Rely upon your teacher and community, and just throw yourself into it!

This has been excerpted from The Rinzai Zen Way: A Guide to Practice.

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