Ask the average person on the street to say what he or she knows about Zen and the likelyresponse will be probably meditation and "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Ask themwhat these ideas mean within the Zen tradition and, more likely than not, the average personwill not know. Less likely will they know the purpose of meditation or the koan within the tradition. To understand Zen one needs to look at its origin and evolution as aunique Buddhist practice.
Many branches of Buddhism in China had their origins in India. Ch'an was one of these branches. Its origins go back to a complex system of meditation from India that was a basic practice of early Buddhism (Matsunaga 2:193). This mediation tradition was called dhyana yoga. So important was this system of meditation, it is where the label "Ch'an" comes from as well as the corresponding Japanese "Zen," being transliterations of the Indian word dhyana .
The purpose of dhyana is to calm the mind and allow the practitioner to look into his own inner consciousness without the distractions of the world outside (Ch'en 350). Looking within and getting beyond distractions in an introspective meditation, one can reach new levels of awareness. The original Indian dhyana meditation had four stages after the initial preparation of finding a teacher. The teacher is responsible for telling the student what to do, giving an appropriate meditation depending on the disposition of the student. The student then found a place to meditate, concentrating on the object of meditation (McRae 10-14-97). In the four stages of dhyana , various aspects of distraction are dropped until the student goes from turbulent activity of the world to a calm, focused concentration of the mind.
Indian meditation texts were some of the first texts translated into Chinese as Buddhism was introduced to China. Yet these texts often seemed obscure or unintelligible to the Chinese (de Bary 207). From these texts, meditation was to find a new place within one branch of Buddhism. Dhyana yoga became Sinicized as its form was simplified and Ch'an became an important branch of Chinese Buddhism. Although Ch'an retains meditation for the purpose of reaching new levels of awareness and the importance of the teacher-student relationship of dhyana yoga, it went beyond being a mere discipline to instead become a way of life for its practitioners (de Bary 356).
The basic idea in Ch'an is to discover one's own Buddha-nature within through meditation and introspection (Wright 78). This idea, though, needs clarification to understand its place within the Ch'an tradition. On the surface it appears to be a fairly simple and easily practicable goal, yet looking deeper within Ch'an, one can see that there is no agreement on the proper way to meditate to discover one's own Buddha-nature. Ch'an divided itself into several schools, many of which declined and disappeared. The Northern and Southern schools survived, forming the two major branches of Ch'an. Before examining their differences, however, a look at their commonalities can begin to uncover what it means to practice Ch'an.
Indian dhyana was a gradual means of self-cultivation. In the Sinicization of dhyana , Ch'an left the road of gradual enlightenment behind in favor of sudden enlightenment (Buswell 321). Ch'an dispensed with the stages of gradual enlightnement. Samadhi (concentration) and prajña (wisdom) were specific steps in Indian meditation practices, but in the Sinicization of these practices, samadhi and prajña became not stages of practice, but rather, stages within the mind that are always present (Buswell 328). In terms of Ch'an meditative practice, the stages of dhyana were seen as ever present, therefore, sudden enlightenment is wholly achievable. Eventually Ch'an saw fit to discard samadhi and prajña altogether since they were already a part of the enlightened mind (Buswell 330).
Sudden enlightenment is simply a sudden realization of one's own Buddha-nature. It is from this point on that Ch'an begins to completely leave behind its Indian origins to become a tradition with a uniquely Chinese flavor. The only obvious remnant within Ch'an of dhyana yoga is the relationship between master and disciple. The disciple performs all study under the direction of the master who determines the state of the disciple's progress and understanding, eventually transmitting his teaching to the disciple (de Bary 208). However, the transmission of the teaching takes on a twist. Within Ch'an, the master passes on his teachings to the disciple by a mind to mind transferenece (de Bary 298).
Whether or not this transmission is some form of telepathic transference is not important. What is important is the more symbolic meaning behind it. Enlightenment is essentially an ineffable experience. No description in language could ever hope to capture the essence of the experience, so the only practical instruction in Ch'an consists of a direct transmission of the experience of enlightenment (Buswell 336). Ch'an stresses an independence from language, even claiming to be a transmission of Buddhism outside the scriptures, emphasizing instead the importance of meditation (de Bary 208). Words are seen as unnecessary to communicate ideas, for once enlightenment is achieved, one has transcended mental discriminations to see only the undifferentiated (Ch'en 353). Words only serve to label and differentiate one thing from another, but the enlightened mind is beyond those distinctions.
This undifferentiated state is exactly where one finds the Buddha-nature within Ch'an. It is present within all sentient beings, experienced by a direct and instantaneous intuitive awareness (Ch'en 357). Meditation is the way to reach this intuitive awareness of one's own Buddha-nature. This leads to enlightenment which is a recognition of the unity of everything as an undifferentiated whole (Ch'en 358). Basically, one is already enlightened and only needs to realize it. Merely accepting oneself and life as they are is enlightenment (de Bary 241). This state of being is the same for all practitioners of Ch'an, but different masters had different methods of getting their disciples to the enlightened state (de Bary 208).
Ch'an descended from the teachings of Bodhidharma, but as it entered China new interpretations were formed which led to new schools of Ch'an. Most of these schools eventualy died out, but two managed to survive and thrive. The Ts'ao-tung school is characterized by sitting in meditation with the guidance of a master. In this school the master teaches directly and secretly by verbal instructions with emphasis on argument and reason (Ch'en 359). This Northern school interprets the concept of sudden enlightenment within a process of gradual cultivation. After the initial enlightenment experience, further spiritual development is needed before it has any practical meaning to the individual (Buswell 340). The second school is the Southern school of sudden enlightenment-sudden cultivation in which both aspects are simultaneously perfected (Buswell 340). This is the Lin-chi shcool, characterized by the use of the kung-an to break the student out of ordinary modes of thinking in order to reach enlightenment (Ch'en 359). Due to constrictions, for the purposes of this paper discussion of Ch'an Buddhism will be confined to the Lin-chi school, while the Ts-ao-tung school will be discussed in its Japanese Zen form, the Soto school.
Ch'an as a way of life can best be seen in the Lin-chi school. Lin-chi I-hsuan rejected formal practices, instead focusing attention on daily activities. Daily activities such as eating, sleeping, getting dressed, or whatever it might be, were thought to be manifestations of one's own Buddha-nature (Matsunaga 2:202). It would not appear that paying attention to daily activities could be at all Buddha-like. Enlightenment, to the unenlgihtened, seems like some mystical "thing" out there somewhere that is beyond the bounds of any sort of normal reality. But as mentioned previously, recognizing one's own Buddha-nature is to recognize the unity of all things in an undifferentiated state. Daily activities can be seen as a manifestation of one's Buddha-nature because, to the enlightened mind, one is aware of the nonduality of everything. Being aware of one's own Buddha-nature raises daily activities to a level equivalent to meditation (Matsunaga 2:202).
The nonduality of the enlightened state leads to the Fourfold Analysis of Lin-chi in which subjectivity and objectivity become interchangeable with one another (Matsunaga 2:210). These four characteristics are negation of subjectivity not objectivity, negation of objectivity not subjectivity, negation of both, and negation of neither (Matsunaga 2:20-11). These characteristics typify going from the state of no awareness to the state of awareness which is manifested in daily life. As mentioned above, enlightenment is accepting man and life as they are, and for Lin-chi this corresponds to negation of neither objectivity nor subjectivity. Awareness of both these is an inherent quality, the Buddha-nature within, and sudden enlightenment comes by recognizing this fact (Matsunaga 2:209).
Lin-chi's school is also a school of sudden cultivation. It would seem to be next to impossible to get something for nothing, so to speak. Without some kind of effort being exerted, how does Lin-chi support sudden cultivation? He accounted for it by something inherent within all sentient beings called faith (Buswell 342). The idea of faith is accepting oneself as already enlightened. At the same time, faith is radiated by one's Buddha-nature to prod one to enlightenment (Buswell 342). The process, then, is the same as the result. This seems like a contradiction. It is like saying a journey to somewhere is the same as already being there, or "wherever you go, there you are." This idea of sudden enlightenment-sudden cultivation appears completely irrational. Yet it may not be so. The only difference between the enlightened and unenlightened minds is in perception. The enlightened mind is aware that everything is a manifestation of the Buddha-nature while the unenlightened mind is not. No long process of cultivation is necessary because the Buddha-nature is everywhere. One only needs to accept that as the case, then go on about performing daily activities.
The Lin-chi school is famous for its particular way of stimulating awakening within an individual. The kung-an (public case) is a sort of paradoxical riddle. Everyone knows that one hand cannot clap so how can there be a sound of one hand clapping? A student meditates on the kung-an until the master decides the student has an intuitive understanding of what it means (de Bary 209). The encounter dialogue of the Hong-chou school of Ma-tsu serves the same purpose. The student asks a "stupid" question and gets a nonsensical response (McRae 10-23-97). A nonsensical response in this Ch'an school could be anything from a shout to hitting the student (which Lin-chi was well known for), to a simple gesture such as pointing a finger because a verbal answer would not do for the student's question (de Bary 209).
With such nonsensical responses to questions, it might seem as if the kung-an had no valid purpose. These dialogues served a very important purpose. As mentioned before, perception is really the only difference between the enlightened and unenlightened minds. Lest the student become complacent, the kung-an is used to stimulate enlightenment (Buswell 336). The kung-an helps to keep a student on his toes, preventing him from falling into an egotistical and self-aggrandizing stance. The kung-an cannot be understood by any logical reasoning. It can only be understood by an apophatic realization of the ineffable Buddha-nature within oneself.
Numerous kung-ans existed, all with the purpose of helping a student to reach enlightenment. The Yuan-wu-Lin-chi school went one step further. In this school a single kung-an was enough to awaken a student since the entire teaching of Ch'an and Buddhism could be found within by mediation (Buswell 346). Ta-Hui went one step further still. His interpretation is k'an-hua meditation in which the entire kung-an is not important, but rather, it is the hua-t'ou (critical phrase) that deserves the focus of meditation (Buswell 322). K'an-hua Ch'an does not change the purpose of the meditation, though. It still helps to lead the student to enlightenment, overcoming the dualistic thinking to reach understanding of the ineffable quality of the Buddha-nature (Buswell 349). Like the kung-an , the hua-t'ou can only be understood by apophatic realization. Whether meditation is on many kung-ans , a single kung-an , or the hua-t'ou of a kung-an , it serves as an impetus for enlightenment and a hindrance for complacency within the student.
The Lin-chi school was transmitted to Japan and became transliterated to Rinzai and the kung-an to koan. The second major branch of Ch'an, Ts'ao-tung, also was transmitted to Japan. It is known as the Soto school. Zen retains many commonalities with its Ch'an precursor. Zen, as with Ch'an and dhyana , still means meditation. The experience of enlightenment finds a direct transmission in which the experience is seen as identical to Shakyamuni and all other Buddhas who came before (Matsunaga 2:251). The inability of language to convey the experience of enlightenment still abounds in Zen (Matsunaga 2:243). Zen also still carried the idea that the Buddha-nature was to be found within oneself (de Bary 355). But the Soto school takes a divergent view of methods from its cousin, Rinzai Zen.
It has been shown the importance the kung-an held for the Lin-chi school, as well as its idea of sudden enlightenment-sudden cultivation. The Soto school did not hold the same interpretation. Dogen devalued the koan instead putting forth zazen (sitting in meditation) with a clear mind as the way to attain enlightenment. Also, it was not a matter of sudden cultivation, but instead a gradual life long process of realization (de Bary 361). For Dogen, complete awakening did not come all at once. It happened by a deliberate process of growth. Zazen was the realization of the Buddha-nature, or sudden enlightenment, however, Dogen's view was that Buddhahood was not a static thing achieved once, but grew with every effort (de Bary 361).
Dogen stressed the importance of the single practice of zazen , which at that time, the idea of a single practice was prevalent in the Buddhist movements of Japan (Matsunaga 2:241). By sitting in meditation, one is not to think about anything. All things are to be allowed to drop away, including the self. It is in Soto Zen that a uniquely Japanese concept comes about: "drop off the body and the mind," considered to be the same as zazen (Matsunaga 2:239). Dogen felt zazen was a fundamental truth of Buddhism. It was the best way to reach enlightenment because through zazen one obtained Buddhahood for its own sake rather than for oneself (de Bary 360). Dropping the body and mind is qualitatively the same as seeking Buddhahood for its own sake. In fact, one of the criticisms Dogen levelled against the Rinzai school's use of koans was that the use of the koan was too intent upon the achievement of enlightenment (de Bary 361).
Dogen's criticism may have only been pragmatic. He believed zazen was Buddhism, the true path to enlightenment, and rejected labelling it as anything else (de Bary 242). Although this may seem to be nothing more than an arrogant standpoint, from another perspective it could be taken another way. The Zen aversion to language when it comes to the ineffable quality of spiritual matters has been described. Perhaps Dogen's refusal to label Soto Zen was merely a reflection of that aversion since, at its core, Soto Zen is allowing the Buddha-nature to shine forth and nothing more.
Recognizing the Buddha-nature is the same as zazen , yet in a much broader sense, it is daily activity as well (Matsunaga 2:246). Soto Zen shares the same belief as the Rinzai school of Zen as a way of life. Here again, reality is not separate from daily life of the enlightened individual. Once again with the Soto school, enlightenment is the manifestation of reality so reality is living, acting, and being within the present (Matsunaga 2:248). Recognizing one's own Buddha-nature is enlightenment which in turn is manifested all around oneself so that partaking in daily activity is also a sort of meditation.
Meditation is the key to Ch'an/Zen, whatever form it takes. Modern Zen practice resembles very little its origins from dhyana yoga, but that matters little. Even through evolution, the basic aim is roughly the same whether it is called dhyana , Zen, or Ch'an. By adherence to a meditative discipline, one is able to attain greater levels of spiritual growth. Whithin Ch'an itself, as well, although the name of the school may change, the methods of its masters may differ, the same goal is sought. It is possible to find one's own Buddha-nature and to live each and every moment with every action in a state of enlightenment.
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