Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Here It Is (A Post-Midnight Reverie)

The Blue Cliff Record, Case 52 is sometimes referred to as “Seppo’s ‘What is it?’” The introduction to the koan says, “As soon as there is affirmation and negation you lose your mind in a flurry, but without descent into stages, there is no way of seeking. So tell me, is it right to let go, or is it right to hold still? Dogen-zenji said, “Breathing in or breathing out, after all, what is it?” I'm asking now, "Who can tell?"

“Here is your crown
And your seal and rings.
And here is your love
For all things.”

My teacher, Samu Sunim, would often remind us to pay attention to “Just this; Right here; Right now.” His “just this” would reverberate through my bodymind and sometimes illuminate my actions and sometimes dumbfound me. But today, listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Here It Is” I felt a frisson of recognition. And I thought of one of my favorite stories found among the koan collections:

Guishan asked Daowu, “Where are you coming from?”
Daowu said, “I’ve come from tending the sick.”
Shan said “How many people were sick?”
Wu said, “There were the sick and the not sick.”
“Isn’t the one not sick you?” Guishan said.
Daowu said, “Being sick and not being sick have nothing to do with the True Person*. Speak quickly! Speak quickly!”
Guishan said. “Even if I could say anything, it wouldn’t relate.”

Later Tiantong commented on this, saying, “Say something anyway!”

Who are the sick? Who are the not sick? How can we tell?  Is there a difference or is there not? Especially if being sick and not being sick are ultimately irrelevant to living the authentic life. To help understand the questions being asked here, it may be helpful to know that from at least one understanding of this dialogue, all of us are sick, suffering from a fatal disease called "life." We all know the prognosis: we will die. Given this, who can the "not sick" possibly be?

“Here is your cart,
And your cardboard and piss;
And here is your love
For all this.”

It’s all piss, isn’t it? We’re born, we age, we love, we lose love, and we die. And yet, Cohen reminds us that we can live from a place where we love “all this.” How is this possible? Or, again, might we understand this phrase, "For all this," to mean what does love matter in the face of all this? It seems the statement can go either way.  And yet...

“May everyone live,
And may everyone die.
Hello, my love,
And my love, goodbye.”

My daughter asked me this morning, upon hearing this refrain, “Why does he say ‘goodbye’ to his love?” Why, indeed? Can we ever say “goodbye?” Or, perhaps more accurately, when we say “Goodbye,” (because we do and it happens more than we like to contemplate) what do we mean? What are we really saying? Everyone alive lives and everyone alive dies. We’re alive until we’re not. There’s no discrete point where we go from “living” to “dying.” Love, too, lives and dies in each heartbeat, each breath, each moment. And yet, what is it? What is "love?" And what lives? What dies? Is it (love), like living-dying, something that cannot be pinned down?

“Here is your wine,
And your drunken fall;
And here is your love,
Your love for it all.”

Really? Even for the heartbreak? Can we, do we love even the fall? When my heart breaks, as it does now, I find it hard to even imagine loving the fall, and yet, if I’d never loved; if I’d never felt loved, could I ever have experienced such a fall? So, isn’t this fall an integral part of “it all?” And I do; I really do want to love it all. And I remember this long night, that a Marist brother once told me, “We can love it; we don’t have to like it.”

“Here is your sickness;
Your bed and your pan.
And here is your love
For the woman, the man.”

Daowu, when asked by Guishan, “Where are you coming from?” responded by saying “I’ve come from tending the sick.” But, as Guishan points out, we aren’t sure who and how many are sick. How can we even tell the difference? He asks, “How many people were sick?” After Daowu says there were the sick and the not sick, and Guishan then further muddles down the path of discrimination by asking, ““Isn’t the one not sick you?” Daowu’s retort, “Being sick and not being sick have nothing to do with the True Person” can really put one’s knickers in a bind. Or turn our world upside-down. How is this possible? “As soon as there is affirmation and negation you lose your mind in a flurry…” As soon as we speak of being ill and not being ill, our mind is lost in confusion.

“And here is the night,
The night has begun.
And here is your death
In the heart of your son.

And here is the dawn,
(Until death do us part).
And here is your death,
In your daughter’s heart.”

Here, in the play of night and day, here is your love for it all, but, lest we forget, the Sandokai advises, “In the light there is darkness, but don’t take it as darkness; In the dark there is light, but don’t see it as light. Light and dark oppose one another like the front and back foot in walking.”

Notice that the front foot is never the front foot for long; nor does the back foot remain the back foot. “Each of the myriad things has its merit, expressed according to function and place.”

And within the very hearts of our children, those, in other words, who follow, perhaps including even the consequences of our actions, already lives our death. So what is “life?” What is “death?”

“And here you are hurried,
And here you are gone;
And here is the love,
That it’s all built upon.”

Such a fragile foundation to build upon. And yet, can anyone propose something of greater strength and value? What is it?

Like the beat, beat, beat of the tom tom
When the jungle shadows fall.
Like the tick, tick, tock of the stately clock
As it stands against the wall.
Like the drip, drip drip of the rain drops
When the summer showers through
A voice within me keeps repeating
You, you, you….

Cole Porter knows of what he sings. Night and day, day and night, “it’s no matter” where s/he is. The longing follows wherever we go. Whether in the traffic’s boom or the noisy silence of one’s lonely room, there is the “hungry, yearning, burning” that ceaselessly torments the lover. But what is it?

“Here is your cross,
Your nails and your hill;
And here is your love,
That lists where it will.”

“And may everyone live,
And may everyone die;
Hello, my love,

And my love, goodbye.”

Here it is...

* The concept of the "true person" is a bit problematic. There is within the zen traditions, the influence of Vedanta and Taoism that has led to a persistent tendency to reify the "mind" as a kind of subtle atman. The "true person" in this understanding is the essence behind the deluded, ever-changing bodymind.

From a naturalist perspective, however, talk of the "true person" can be understood as merely a metaphor for living from intimate authenticity. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

International Blasphemy Rights Day

Nilroy Neel is the fourth atheist blogger in Bangladesh hacked to death by machete-wielding Islamic fanatics in six months. Six men entered into his house and while four of them “confined” his wife in another room, the remaining two brutally beheaded him. While such barbarity is not unheard of in Pakistan, prior to 2015, there were six attacks against free-thinkers resulting in two deaths over a period of fifteen years. But, this year alone, four brave secular writers have been hacked to death for the crime of raising their voices against extremism and encouraging equal rights for all.

And this is at least one reason I celebrate International Blasphemy Rights Day and invite and encourage all who value free-thinking, religious freedom, and the free expression of all to join me. What many fail to recognize is that all other recognized rights ultimately depend upon this right to freedom of expression. After all, how could the oppressed have fought for the right to vote, the right to be free from slavery, the right to due process, and the equal rights of LGBTQ people without the ability to publically criticize traditions, dogmas, and ideologies that have kept in place unjustifiable restrictions on liberty, dignity, and autonomy?

Without the right of freedom of expression, there’s no way to openly investigate and determine the truth of any claim, whether in science, politics, philosophy or religion. The right of free expression itself has value for the dignity of the individual in that only with the guarantee of such expression can one express oneself as an individual.

As of 2012, nearly a quarter of the world’s countries (including some among the European Union, Canada, and several of the States of America) has anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and ten-percent penalized apostasy and atheism, with punishments varying from fines to capital punishment! And as we might expect, all thirteen countries that penalize apostasy with execution are Muslim.

Sadly, many “liberals” and “progressives” who, while not favoring punishment of speech critical of religion, all-too-often will condemn criticism of religion, especially when it takes the form of satire. And, if that satire is directed at Islam, the accusation of “racism” or “Islamophobia” is invoked. But make no mistake, those Muslims who object to satire (and any and all criticism) of their religion (including Muhammad) pay little attention to the color, religion, or nationality of the satirists and critics. Raif Badawi, the founder of an online forum allowing diverse views to be expressed freely is currently serving a ten-year prison sentence in Saudi Arabia and has been sentenced to one-thousand lashes and a huge monetary fine. Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, a Muslim, and Minister of Minorities Affairs in Pakistan, was assassinated for criticizing that country’s blasphemy laws. Lawyers representing individuals accused of blasphemy have also been targeted.

Blasphemy laws privilege beliefs over individuals. Such laws are used to suppress individuals, minorities and dissenters. Governments are empowered to use these laws against dissenters, but extremists are also empowered and encouraged to take it upon themselves to violently punish blasphemers and their defenders.

Though such oppressive laws are often touted as necessary to promote religious harmony, they actually lead to religious intolerance, discrimination, and violence. Historical evidence shows that countries that protect freedom of religion for all – including those of the majority faith, minorities, dissenters and those holding no religious beliefs – tend toward greater stability, prosperity and tolerance.

An in-depth exploration of the lasting influence of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, “The Importance of Being Blasphemous: Literature, Self-Censorship, and the Legacy of The Satanic Verses” by Stephen R. Welch published in the October/November 2015 issue of Free Inquiry details the chilling effect of the liberal appeasement of religious extremists. He writes:

“It is deeply troubling that the lesson learned from Khomeini’s fatwa over the past twenty-six years has not been how to better champion and protect our writers, playwrights, and scholars but rather how to best emulate the ‘rage of Islam’ in order to suppress any speech and art that an aggrieved party can claim has offended them. Free speech has become an indulgence, whereas grievance culture is now an equal-opportunity entitlement.

“The Rushdie affair, as Malik observes, was a watershed. Rushdie’s detractors ‘lost the battle in the sense that they never managed to stop the publication of The Satanic Verses,’ but, he says, ‘they won the war by pounding into the liberal consciousness the belief that to give offence was a morally despicable act.’ We have internalized the fatwa

But perhaps, the tide can still change. In some circles the realization that free expression simply must not be curtailed in a mis-directed, naïve attempt to avoid giving offense to extremists who, if they were to succeed to greater power, would extend no such courtesy to us. For the sake of those who have died for the sake of speaking their minds, we must do all we can to sustain free thought and expression for the sake of all.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Impermanence Permeates Us

Every morning, during prostration practice, our dharma students shout a line from this gatha after every 25 prostrations:


Before anyone thinks we're encouraging ever greater "productivity" and more things to do and accomplish with that last line, we're not. We're exhorting ourselves and anyone with the ears to hear it that we should actually be here for the life we have! We squander it when we fail to actually embody our life; when we take it for granted -- as we tend to do when we live as if we have unlimited time. The contemplation of our mortality is designed to wake us up to this. Whatever this may be in any moment.

The original second line of the gatha was "Impermanence surrounds us" which to my ears sounded like we were these islands of permanence amidst an ocean of impermanence, so I changed it: "we" are permeated with it; it's not some defect or add-on.

And here's something we can add to our contemplation when we consider the impermanent nature of the earth herself:

1. In about 1.1 billion years, the sun will be 10% brighter. This will mean that Earth's oceans will begin to boil off into space. No more yachts; no more cruises; no more lemonade.

2. In 3.5 billion years, the Earth will look like a true twin of Venus: dry, hot and dead. Yup. We and all life will be over.

3. In 5 billion years, the sun itself is running down, its hydrogen fuel growing depleted. Its diameter expands out beyond the orbit of the Earth. Two scenarios here: the Earth may either be engulfed by the giant sun OR -- with the expansion of its size, it will lose weight and thus -- its lower gravitation may push the Earth away spiraling out into a more distant orbit.

4. In 5.4 billion years, the sun is a full-on red giant, with only a little bit of hydrogen left in a shell around its helium core.

5. By 6.4 billion years from now, the sun's outer layers will slough off, leaving behind a white dwarf, so dense that a teaspoon of it weighs 15-tons! If the Earth hadn't already been engulfed in the red giant stage, now the extreme gravity of the white dwarf may cause the now molten wasteland of the Earth to fall into the remains of its star,

Enjoy your day!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


There’s a story about the human condition that is quite well-known that goes like this:

A woman is running from some tigers that are chasing her. They are gaining on her when she comes to a cliff. She looks and sees a vine growing out from the cliff, so she climbs out onto the vine and holds on tightly. The tigers are now just above her head, pawing at the ground and sniffing the air. Then she looks down and sees that there are tigers down there as well. Just then she notices the mouse that had been there gnawing away at the vine above her head, just out of reach. She also sees a few ripe, red strawberries growing from a nearly clump of grass just within her reach. She looks up at the tigers, she looks down at the tigers, she looks at the mouse. Then, she picks the largest of the strawberries, pops it in her mouth and chews. It is lusciously delicious and she enjoys it thoroughly.

The first time I heard this story was at a yoga ashram back in the 70s, and the metaphor was made even more obvious by having two mice, one white and one black, gnawing away at the vine. Yes, day and night is eating away at our lifeline. We were born and we will die and each moment is just what it is. At the ashram, I was told that this is the human predicament, and that we commonly and foolishly ignore the reality of life and death and distract ourselves with “strawberries.” The swami said that, rather then indulge in the sensual pleasures of life, we yoga students should dedicate all our energies to getting out of this predicament. After all, for much of yoga philosophy, moksha, or “liberation,” is understood as the ceasing of reincarnation, the constant ‘wandering forth’ from life through death to life, again and again and again. 

Early buddhism, too, teaches that the point of practice is to end the cycle of rebirth. In this way, early buddhism is a world-weary, world renouncing path. This is what is behind the perennial criticism of buddhism as ‘pessimistic’ and ‘life-denying.’ Now, to be clear, the fact that early buddhism also teaches that there is indeed a transcendent state beyond the suffering of the world, and that this state can be realized should be enough to see that it is not pessimistic. But it is life and world-denying. Its "optimism" is based upon this transcendent experience outside this world.

Now, the second time I heard this story was in a zen monastery and the teacher mimed the act of reaching for the strawberry, popping it into his mouth and chewing with obvious delight. Only this time, the message conveyed to us zen students was that given our life situation, with each moment our life hanging by a thread, being caught in anxiety, resentment, bitterness, and anger prevents us from fully experiencing our life; Such reactivity keeps us from fully seeing, hearing, tasting and delighting in "just this." This might be the only moment of our life; this may be the only strawberry. Do we really want to miss it because we are anxiously focused on our existential state? Given our life situation, we can be depressed about this, or we could appreciate our life, as Maezumi Roshi would encourage.

I can see how this plays out in my own life. When I find myself caught in anger or anxiety – usually about how things are going in my life or the fears about what may happen in the future – I completely lose the reality of this moment. Please don't misunderstand; this moment may be painful, indeed. It’s not all sweetness. Some strawberries are sour. But, as difficult as it may be, when push comes to shove, I’d much rather taste that sourness completely then be swept away by mental fabrications.

All this isn’t to say we should be all polly-annish about life and the circumstances we must face. There’s a lot of oppression in this world, with lots of injustice that we must resist, fight and change. And practice can challenge us to do this while engaging in each moment with as much integrity as we can muster. And that includes tasting all the tastes life has to offer. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Confronting Abuse of Power...

The Winter 2014 issue of Buddhadharma had a dramatic, stark cover with “Confronting Abuse of Power” emblazoned across its center. Under this, was written, “How it harms practitioners and communities; What can be done to prevent it; How to address abuse when it happens; Steps you can take to protect yourself and others.”

When I saw this at the newsstand (I’ve let my subscription lapse as I’ve grown increasingly disappointed with what passes for contemporary buddhist ‘journalism’) I scooped it up and eagerly looked forward to reading it with relief that finally at least some buddhist media was willing to actually confront abuse. What I found was weak and frustratingly superficial.

In the same way, now a group of 90 zen teachers has published an open letter at Lion’s Roar (a website sponsored by Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma), initiated by Abbess Myoan Grace Schireson of the Empty Nest Zendo and Rev. Genjo Joe Marinello of the Choboji Zen Center. To my mind, it is yet another anemic response offering too little and coming, if not too late, certainly long overdue.

The letter pointedly mentions in particular the wonderfully researched and written article written by Mark Oppenheimer for The Atlantic that covered the abuses of zen teacher Eido Shimano over the course of several decades. Only now, with this “revelation,” the mainstream zen teacher community pledges “to build more visible ethics codes” and work “toward consensus on national standards of behavior.” The letter goes on to state that, “as Zen Buddhist community leaders we are committed to changing the culture of silence and the idealization of the teacher’s status that has been so detrimental to students.”

After referring to “scoundrels and sociopaths,” some of whom become teachers and priests, the letter states that “revelations concerning Eido Shimano” are now taken “as a wake-up call to each of us to pay close attention to the safety of the members of our community and to monitor our own behavior as well as that of others.”

So, all this sounds good. What do I have to criticize about such a sincere response? Am I simply being a curmudgeon? Well, to begin, the letter suggests that Oppenheimer’s article “exposed” a problem with Eido Shimano, and yet I – at best described as an outlier of the zen community – had heard about such abuse twenty years ago. Stripping The Gurus notes that "rumors" about Eido were already spreading in the early 70s, just before I began practicing at the New York Zendo. What I hadn’t known until only a few years ago, but still way before the Oppenheimer article, is that such a respected teacher as Aitken Roshi had known for even longer and had kept quiet about what he knew in order to “protect the dharma.” Of course this is a classic excuse for justifying and maintaining silence when the right thing to do is clearly to speak out. For someone who has written a classic on zen ethics (The Mind of Clover) this is one major ethical fail! It speaks to the tightly wound web of secrecy that is endemic to zen tradition.

Second, why only now after this particular scandal are mainstream zen teachers pledging to do something? This after Richard Baker Roshi, Taizan Maezumi Roshi, Genpo Marzel Roshi, and Joshu Sasaki Roshi which is already too many. And it’s not about sex. Or finances. It’s about power, hierarchical structures of power that become oppressive and de-liberating. It’s about secrecy and the  obfuscation promoted by much of zen culture. For too long, teachers and students have turned a blind eye to the problem posed by “scoundrels” because they are merely the symptom of a problem that lies at the very heart of zen culture. And that’s why the focus on “scoundrels and sociopaths” is ultimately the safest, most anemic, and irresponsible position the zen teacher community can take! The problem is not simply “a few bad apples,” but the mythic-based structures that enshrine dysfunctional power relations within zen communities, most particularly the magico-mythos of “transmission” and the elevated ideal of the “teacher” found in zen, and in particular Japanese zen, which has had the biggest influence on American zen.

Interestingly, even James Myoun Ford has written at his blog, “So, I think we need teachers, but they need to be taken down a peg or two. The analogy I’ve used in the past continues to hold for me. In the Christian tradition the myth of Catholic apostolic succession and bishops as magical successors in a lineage gives way to an Anglican view, where the form of bishop is retained but seen as functional rather than magical. We need Zen teachers in succession who see themselves not as magical inheritors but as long time students entrusted with a terrible and beautiful responsibility.” What I find ironic is that this is the same man who authored a book entitled Zen Master Who? In that book, Ford writes: “This transmission – perhaps more correctly with a capital T -- was clearly about spiritual authority. It was the acknowledgment of realization and the right to teach in the name of the lineage. This Transmission was now clearly distinguishable from simple ordination into the monastic sangha.” I would assert that transmission (most especially with a capital T), authorization, and lineage are at the heart of zen’s dysfunctional relationship to power.

The legendary biography of the buddha has him a Prince, the son of a King who ruled autocratically, as kings do, in his kingdom. The reality, however, is that the buddha was born into the Sakiya (Sakhya) republic. Republics were named after the ruling clan. His father was elected to a position equivalent to president of the republic and speaker of the assembly. I think this is important to remember because it was upon the structure of the republic and the council that the buddha modeled his sangha, and not the kingdoms that were forming at that time.

It appears that the buddha did not grant himself autocratic control of the sangha, though I’ve no doubt his word generally received greatest respect and was mostly followed. That said, there is a story I’ve found amusing about a time when the monks were caught in an argument amongst themselves, and when they refused to take the buddha’s advice, the buddha left the sangha for a few weeks, finding the monks tiresome! It was only after they had resolved their issues that they approached the buddha and requested he return to the sangha.

Before he died, the buddha was explicitly asked by Ananda, his cousin and attendant, for “some last instructions respecting the community of bhikkhus.” To this, the buddha responded: "What more does the community of bhikkhus expect from me, Ananda? I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back. Whosoever may think that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him, it is such a one that would have to give last instructions respecting them. But, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such idea as that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him. So what instructions should he have to give respecting the community of bhikkhus?

The Tathagata held no idea that he led the community or that the community depended upon him! But zen’s founding myth is the mysterious, subtle “direct mind-to-mind transmission” from the buddha to Mahakashyapa, the first of such “transmissions.”

What American zen teachers choose to ignore is that zen’s origins in China were as an upstart sect that created the “transmission outside the scriptures” supposedly creating a lineage of enlightened masters as a way to create a sense of legitimacy and to gain acceptance of the Chinese populace. This is already a far cry from the buddha’s assertion that he made no distinction between esoteric and exoteric doctrine.” Along with this myth, the emphasis on “authority” and “lineage” comes as the inheritance of Confucian ancestor worship that encouraged the reverence for the patriarchs of zen. Finally, with the “transmission” to the fifth Chinese patriarch, Hui-neng, we see more mystification and secrecy, the transmission taking place in the dead of night, with no witnesses, only teacher and disciple.

As I write in my essay on Hui-neng, lineage “has come to mean the “certification,” the “seal of sanctioned approval” of one Master’s enlightenment by another through a “mind-to-mind” transmission, certifying the legitimacy of the succeeding teacher to be a teacher and leader of the Sangha. It is this idea of lineage transmission  that is greatly emphasized in Zen. This practice can be seen as a means of ensuring that only properly certified and genuinely enlightened people are allowed to teach, which would be seen as a protection for those of us who are unenlightened from being exploited, or it can be seen as a system for maintaining priestly power and creating mystique.”

The elevating of the teacher found in zen is the consequence of these various factors: the myth of “mind-to-mind transmission” certifying one’s enlightenment; the emphasis on lineage inherited from Confucianism; and the obfuscation to make the obvious non-obvious that I write about in the above linked essay.

The blog post from James Ford, and the open letter signed by 90 zen teachers both speak of the need to “take teachers down a peg or two” and to “change the culture of silence and the idealization of the teacher’s status that has been so detrimental to students.”

I’ve been arguing this was needed for decades. I’m happy to see the more established, mainstream zen teacher community finally getting onboard. But as long as the focus is on “scoundrels,” I won’t expect too much to change.

My teacher, Samu Sunim, created a seminary program with a curriculum of training leading to ordination as a dharma teacher (poep sa). This is a move of great transparency. But the term “dharma teacher” has itself become idealized through structures that treat the title and the person as “magical inheritors.” A well-respected zen teacher told me that he thought decades of practice and study are required before one can be authorized and authenticated to be a dharma teacher. Yet, the fact remains that every one of the teachers mentioned above who have shown themselves to be “scoundrels” were “authenticated and approved” to be inheritors of mind-to-mind transmission and enlightenment. Why not just treat them as teachers? Folk who know a bit more about the subject and who can give guidance and advice? Like, you know teachers!

It may be relevant to note that while such examples of grievous misconduct are all too easy to find in the traditions that idealize the role of teacher such as zen and Tibetan buddhism with its guru-centric practice (to the point of adding going for refuge to the lama as a fourth refuge!), there doesn’t seem to be the same issue in western vipassana (mostly lay teachers who manage to keep precepts better than the zen priests!) or Theravada buddhism. Perhaps among the reasons for this is that structurally, the Theravada traditions view teachers as teachers! They are not idealized, but rather appreciated, with reverence, as friends-along-the-path (kalyana-mitta). This is the difference Ford points to when he compares the apostolic succession of Catholic and Anglican bishops. It is a function served, not mystical, magical or even about the person per se.

Here in Tucson, our sangha is modeled after the republican council of the buddha’s sangha. All our meetings: community planning meetings, board of director meetings and membership meetings are open to the public. Not just members of the sangha: the public. All decisions other than practice related (and some of them are open to discussion) are made by consensus. I have no unilateral, absolute power to make decisions outside of spending two-hundred dollars a quarter. This commitment to transparency has empowered all our members to speak up and speak out whenever anything seems less than obvious. These are structural issues that were put in place prophylactically, so to speak. And, despite this, we are currently working on a Code of Ethics, as well as a Grievance Process, because being prepared with eyes open truly is already the best protection for teacher, student and community.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Hui-neng: His Legendary Biography, the Platform Sutra and the Diamond-Cutter

Hui-neng, the sixth Patriarch, asked, “Whence do you come?”
Huai-jang of Nan-yueh said, “I come from Tung-shan.”
Hui-neng asked, “What is it that thus comes?”
Huai-jang did not know what to answer. For eight long years
 he pondered the question; then one day it dawned upon him,
 and he exclaimed,
“Even to say it is something does not hit the mark.”1

To attempt writing this post, I have read five translations and commentaries on The Diamond Sutra including Hui-neng’s, and four translations of The Platform Sutra, and I know nothing. Certainly I know less than when I began, but it must be admitted that this is most surely a good result. There are thoughts, reactions and opinions regarding what I have read, but the questions are so much more alive in me than anything I could positively say about any of this. To say anything is to miss the mark.
When I first read The Platform Sutra many years ago, I wondered how this could be Buddhism? Indeed, there was much I recognized from other readings, but there was also much that seemed foreign to what I had read previously. I was especially taken aback by certain terms used by Hui-neng that seemed terribly close to how Brahman is referred to in the Upanishads. Additionally, I was displeased by the sectarianism that seemed to penetrate much of the text, and when I later learned about some of the political maneuvering, and how the lineage was more created myth than reality – and considering how the practice of lineage had been so misused up until this day – I turned away from what Hui-neng could teach me.

This current engagement represents a new grappling with Hui-neng and what his life has to teach me personally, as well as all practitioners of Buddha-Dharma, and in no way is to be seen as conclusive. It is but barely a beginning!


The dates generally agreed upon for Hui-neng, also called Wei-lang, are 638 to 713 CE. He is recognized as the sixth Chinese Patriarch of Ch’an, and as such is sometimes regarded as the “real” father of the Ch’an tradition because of the strong Chinese “stamp” or “flavor” he imparted to what until his time had been strongly marked by traditional Indian Buddhism. While he never formally transmitted the patriarchate to a successor, he did have several outstanding students, and among them, Huai-jang and Shen-hui had a great impact on the “five houses—seven schools” of Ch’an during the T’ang period.

For centuries it has been taught that he gave the teachings recorded in the only Chinese Buddhist work accorded the status of sutra: The Sutra Spoken from the High Seat of the Dharma Treasure, more commonly referred to as The Platform Sutra. From this sutra, we learn that Hui-neng came from a poor background, supporting his widowed mother by gathering and selling firewood, and thus had never learned to read or write.

One day, while tending to his business, he heard someone reciting The Diamond Sutra, and upon hearing the sentence, “Let your mind flow freely without dwelling on anything,” he had a spontaneous enlightenment (or enlightening) experience. Upon questioning the man who had been reciting the sutra, he learned about Hung-jen, the Fifth Patriarch of Ch’an and his monastery on Mount Huang-mei.
Hui-neng left home (after providing for his mother) to go see Hung-jen, who we are told, immediately recognized his potential, but had Hui-neng assigned to the kitchen where his chores were to split firewood and crank the rice mill. Apparently he worked there for years, mostly unnoticed by all but the Fifth Patriarch.

When the time came for Hung-jen to transmit the patriarchate to a successor, he asked his students to express their experience and understanding of the Dharma in a poem. All the students, sure that the senior monastic, Shen-hsiu, was destined to become Hung-jen’s successor because of his intellectual brilliance, refrained from writing poems, so that the only poem written was by Shen-hsiu.
In his poem, Shen-hsiu compared the human body with the Bodhi-tree and the mind with a mirror-stand holding a mirror that must be continuously cleaned in order to keep it free from dust settling upon it. When Hui-neng had Shen-hsiu’s poem read to him, he composed a poem in answer and had someone write it for him:

“Enlightenment originally has no tree,
And a clear mirror is not a stand.
Originally there’s not a single thing –
Where can dust be attracted?”2

Hung-jen, recognizing Hui-neng’s deeper understanding, and fearing internecine strife, called for Hui-neng to meet with him in the middle of the night and explained The Diamond Sutra to him. According to The Platform Sutra, when Hung-jen got to the point where The Diamond Sutra says, “You should activate the mind without dwelling on anything,” Hui-neng had the overwhelming realization that “all things are not apart from inherent nature.”3

Realizing that Hui-neng had realized original nature, Hung-jen transmitted the robe and bowl symbolizing the transmission of the patriarchate, thus making Hui-neng the Sixth Patriarch. Hung-jen told Hui-neng that the robe had become a “robe of contention” and that its passing should stop with him, and that fearful for his safety if he should remain, Hung-jen had Hui-neng leave the monastery under cover of the night and go into hiding in southern China.

Fifteen years passed while Hui-neng lived among hunters. Finally, it seemed to Hui-neng that the time had come for him to start spreading the teaching, so he went to Fa-hsin monastery in Kuang-chou where the doctrinal master Yin-tsung was expounding upon the Nirvana-Sutra. It was at this time that Hui-neng’s famous dialogue with the monks arguing over whether it was the flag or the wind in motion took place. He stepped forward and said, “It is not the flag or the wind moving; it is your minds moving.”

With this statement, all who heard it were impressed and master Yin-tsung, recognizing Hui-neng’s deep understanding surmised that he must indeed be the carrier of the Dharma as transmitted from Hung-jen. When Hui-neng acknowledged that he indeed was the Dharma successor of Hung-jen, master Yin-tsung shaved Hui-neng’s head and ordained him as a monk, while requesting that Hui-neng become his teacher.

This is how Hui-neng began his teaching career, first at the Fa-hsin monastery, and then eventually at his own monastery, the Pao-lin-ssu near Ts’ao-chi, near the port city of Canton. His teaching became known as the Southern School of Ch’an, while Shen-hsiu and his students taught what became known as the Northern School, also claiming the true successorship of the Fifth Patriarch. As might be expected from the respective verses of Shen-hsiu and Hui-neng, the Northern School advocated a gradual approach to enlightenment along with the intellectual understanding of the meaning of the sutras, whereas the Southern School stressed reaching awakening through “a sudden, intuitive leap into intellect-transcending immediacy of experience.”4

Shen-hsiu’s approach seems more in keeping with the Dhyana movement and emphasis of Indian Buddhism, while Hui-neng’s approach took the definitive step toward assimilating Indian Dhyana Buddhism into the Chinese cultural milieu, marked at least as strongly by Taoism (and perhaps some elements of Confucianism) as by Buddhism. Hiu-neng’s Southern School, with its radical rejection of mere book learning, which was a view already exemplified for centuries by Taoist sages,5 and the more Chinese folk cultural traits of earthiness, combined with dry humor, produced all the great lineages of Ch’an. During the T’ang and Sung periods the successors of Hui-neng were responsible for what has come to be called the “golden age of Ch’an” and it is many of their deeds and sayings that in the form of koans have become an important component of Zen training.


Ching Ch'ing asked a monk, “What sound is that outside the gate?” The monk said, “The sound of raindrops.”
Ching Ch’ing said, “Sentient beings are inverted. They lose themselves and follow other things.”
The monk said, “What about you, Teacher?”
Ch’ing said, “I almost don’t lose myself.”
The monk said, “What is the meaning of ‘I almost don’t lose myself?’”
Ch’ing said, “Though it still should be easy to express oneself, to say the whole thing has to be difficult.”6

Reading the history of the Platform Sutra, as one may find in Philip Yampolsky’s The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, we find that by the middle of the eighth century in China, there was a great intensification of internecine quarrels among the various Buddhist groups. Works attacking rival doctrines (and personages) contributed to the rise of “sectarian Buddhism.”7 According to Yampolsky, due to a combination of historical circumstances, political patronage and the very nature of its teachings, Ch’an emerged as the primary school of Chinese Buddhism.

Yampolsky writes that as Indian Buddhism infiltrated Chinese culture, its meditation teachings were adopted, assimilated with the Taoist contemplative arts, and were put to use by the various schools of Buddhism. Eventually groups of wandering ascetics who emphasized meditation practice began to come together to form communities of practice. By the end of the seventh century, one such community was that of Hung-jen’s who had himself gained considerable prominence. It was with him and his students that the story of Ch’an as a separate sect begins.

It can be somewhat disconcerting to a Westerner to learn that the history of Ch’an she has been taught is no more than “legend” or “myth.” And further, as Yampolsky says, “In the manufacture of this history, accuracy was not a consideration; a tradition traceable to the Indian Patriarchs was the objective.”8 Throughout the eighth century, a two-fold movement took place: there was the primary attempt to establish the upstart Ch’an as a legitimate sect within the larger fold of Buddhism, and there was the internal struggle to gain acceptance for a particular school of Ch’an within the Chinese society in which it existed.

The lovely story about the Buddha holding a flower and thus “transmitting” the Dharma to Mahakashyapa, while perhaps hinting at a deep and profound truth, is itself but one of these manufactured legends that were repeated over time until they became accepted as fact. Many Western students of Zen are totally unaware of this, and feel almost a sense of betrayal when they find out. This was true for me, but over time I have found a way to relate to the deeper existential truth in this and other stories. But I do believe we should critically look at the history and extract what is useful and at least revaluate other aspects that have proven to have had a truly devastating impact on the history of Zen.

Yampolsky states that “To achieve the aura of legitimacy so urgently needed, histories were compiled, tracing the Ch’an sect back to the historical Buddha…”9 The whole lineage chanted in many Japanese and American Zen centers rooted in Japanese Zen, is more fabrication than literal truth. Indeed, the idea of lineage was Chinese manufactured, reflecting the more Confucian ideal of ancestor worship and the hierarchal stratification of Chinese society. In the Pali Canon, and throughout the Theravada tradition, it is explicitly made clear that the Buddha rejected naming anyone as his successor. The almost obsessive emphasis on lineage and authenticity of transmission found in Japanese Zen, in particular (we never chanted any so-called 'blood-line' in my Korean Seon training) has led to much abuse, and ironically, we see its roots at the very beginning with the story of Hui-neng and Shen-hsiu.

The various texts starting from the eight century that purport to tell the history of Ch’an, and the biographies of its major proponents have little to say about Hung-jen, who they name as the Fifth Chinese Patriarch. One text, the Ch’uan fa-pao chi tells us that he died at the age of 74 in the year 675, after transmitting his teachings to Fa-ju. This same text tells us that Shen-hsiu was the heir to Fa-ju, yet in all other works it is Shen-hsiu who was the heir of Hung-jen. All the other works, that is, except for the Platform Sutra that purports to tell us of the “true” transmission line to Hui-neng.

Shen-hsiu (606? – 706) was acknowledged as one of the great Ch’an masters, honored by court and populace alike. He was the great leader of the Lankavatara School, which later came to be known as the Northern Ch’an and was, according to all contemporary records, one of the most eminent priests of his time. The first mention we have of Hui-neng is found in the Leng-chia jen-fa chih where he is simply listed as one of the eleven principle disciples of Hung-jen along with Shen-hsiu, Fa-ju, Chih-hsien and seven others. This same text states that Shen-hsiu transmitted the Patriarchate to P’u-chi, and that along with P’u-chi, Shen-hsiu had three other principle heirs: Ching-hsien, I-fu, and Hui-fu.
While this Ch’an of Shen-hsiu and his disciples was enjoying great popularity and prestige, a then unknown priest from Nan-yang, Shen-hui, intent upon promulgating a new school of his own launched an attack upon the Ch’an of Shen-hsiu, and after years of struggle, eventually carried the day. Apparently, Shen-hui had been a student of Hui-neng’s, and it is most probable that The Platform Sutra was actually written by a student of Shen-hui’s and includes much that is similar to the Discourses of Shen-hui.

Paramount among Shen-hui’s arguments is that "the true transmission" was from Hung-jen to Hui-neng, and not to Shen-hsiu as had been accepted. This, of course, if true, would (conveniently) make Shen-hui’s teachings, as a former student of Hui-neng, more “authentic” than the teachings of students of Shen-hsiu.

Shen-hui did not criticize the “Northern Ch’an” of Shen-hsiu only for its alleged usurpation of the Patriarchate. He also accused the Northern School of holding erroneous views, especially regarding meditation practice. In one of his Discourses, which parallels the alleged teaching of Hui-neng in The Platform Sutra, Shen-hui includes the following passage:

“Master Yuan said: ‘P’u-chi ch’an-shih of Sung-yueh and Hsiang-mo of Tung-shan, these two priests of great virtue, teach men to concentrate the mind to enter dhyana, to settle the mind to see purity, to stimulate the mind to illuminate the external, to control the mind to demonstrate the internal. On this they base their teaching. Why, when you talk about Ch’an, don’t you teach men these things? What is sitting meditation?’
Shen-hui said: ‘If I taught people to do these things, it would be a hindrance to attaining enlightenment. The sitting I’m talking about means not to give rise to thoughts. The meditation I’m talking about is to see the original nature.’”10

Further, in a passage that closely resembles the passage in section 13 (of the Tun-huang text) of the Platform Sutra and throughout chapters two, four, five and eight of the other texts, Shen-hui elucidates his teaching on the identity of prajna and dhyana:

“Not to give rise to thoughts, emptiness without being, this is the true meditation. The ability to see the non-rising of thoughts, to see emptiness without being, this is the true wisdom; at the moment there is meditation, this is the substance of wisdom; at the moment there is wisdom, this is the function of meditation. Thus the moment there is meditation, it is no different from wisdom, The moment there is wisdom, it is no different from meditation. Why? Because by their nature, of themselves, mediation and wisdom are alike.”11

This point is further elaborated by Shen-hui and throughout the Platform Sutra, in the frequent criticism made against the Northern School that it taught a gradual method of attaining enlightenment (as epitomized in Shen-hsiu's poem) through diligent meditative practices, as opposed to the Southern School's "sudden method" of direct intuitive insight into "original nature."

In the following sections of this essay, I seek to describe some of my responses to these three points: 1. the issue of lineage and authenticity; 2. the issue of "practice" and 3. the issue of "gradual" or "sudden" ("immediate"), especially as to how these issues relate to the concepts of "Buddha-Nature" (dhatuvada) and "intrinsic enlightenment."


“The Dhamma I have taught has no secret and public versions: there is no ‘teacher’s closed fist’ about good things here. Surely it would be someone who thought this: ‘I shall govern the Sangha’ or ‘The Sangha depends on me’ who might make a pronouncement about the Sangha? A Perfect One does not think like that…each of you should make himself his island, himself and no other his refuge; each of you should make the Dhamma his island, the Dhamma and no other his refuge.”12

Lineage as a concept meaning that every student and practitioner of the Dharma has learned from other students and practitioners, and that this line of succession goes all the way back to the Buddha in India is both unexceptional and true. It might even be accurate to call it a “truism.” But it helps to deepen one's understanding of continuity and connection to an ancestral stream. When I first took precepts, I felt like I was stepping into a spiritual “ancestral lineage”  and I took great support and nourishment from this awareness, that I am not “alone” and that I am truly a part of something much grander than “this life” or “this lifetime.”

However, lineage has come to mean much more than this. It has come to mean the “certification,” the “seal of sanctioned approval” of one Master’s enlightenment by another through a “mind-to-mind” transmission, certifying the legitimacy of the succeeding teacher to be a teacher and leader of the Sangha. It is this idea of lineage transmission  that is greatly emphasized in Zen. This practice can be seen as a means of ensuring that only properly certified and genuinely enlightened people are allowed to teach which would be seen as a protection for those of us who are unenlightened from being exploited, or it can be seen as a system for maintaining priestly power and creating mystique.

It is obvious that the idea of transmission and lineage is intended to impart the aura of legitimacy, but this begs the question of why would a school or a teacher need such “legitimacy?” Presumably, the answer would be that what they have to offer is non-obvious. What they have to offer is something those of us who are unenlightened would be unable to evaluate. David Brazier, in The New Buddhism, gives the example of using the services of a greengrocer and a doctor. We do not ask to see certification from the greengrocer. We just ask if he has cabbages for sale if that is what we seek and then we look to see their quality. But we do ask to see certification from our doctor because if we wait to see if he knows what he is doing through personal practical experimentation, it may be too late before we realize he is a quack! The lineage system puts Dharma Teachers in the same category as doctors and not in the same one as greengrocers.

Interestingly, Brazier points out that the Buddha put himself in the greengrocer category. “Come and see and try it out for yourself,” he said. If you like what I offer and it helps you to overcome suffering, use it. If not, not. The Buddha did not appoint a successor (although the Mahayana created the legend of the flower sermon to legitimize the idea of succession through Mahakashyapa). The Buddha did offer his opinion as to who was enlightened when asked about particular people. However, there is a passage where Ananda, seeming to pester the Buddha with this question, is told by the Buddha that Ananda could simply see for himself whether someone is enlightened or not, telling him that the test of one’s enlightenment and understanding is how well they follow the discipline. So it seems that the Buddha thought that the matter was obvious, not non-obvious. If a person was enlightened, you could tell from what he or she did. You could know them by their deeds.

After the death of the Buddha, differing camps began to arise, each with its own slant on the teachings of the Buddha. Once the Mahasanghika, the spiritual ancestors of the Mahayana, began to express willingness to change the rules and the form, criterion other than orthodoxy was required to establish legitimacy. Lineage was grasped onto as a way of showing that while the way a particular school practices or teaches may not look like the way the Buddha did; it is directly descended from and derived from him. Lineage also implies that as all the changes were made by certified enlightened Masters, they are not only authentic and true, they are perhaps even improvements on what the Buddha taught and how the orthodoxy practices! That is to say again, lineage becomes a means of legitimizing the non-obvious.

This use and understanding of lineage is highly problematic. First of all, lineage is a form of “argument from authority” which Western logic regards as a fallacious argument (although, unfortunately as we have learned all too sadly in the USA throughout the “war on terrorism,” all too accepted by popular opinion). Just because someone holds a high position does not, of itself, ensure that he or she is right. The Buddha himself stressed this in his Discourse to the Kalamas when he told them not to believe and accept something just because of the position of the person who has told you it – including himself in this. Things are not true simply because the Buddha says it. They are true if they are true, and regarding things that matter, like birth and death and how to live a “noble” life, while we may need wiser folk to point it out to us, we still need to test what they say for ourselves. Sadly, humans like to shirk this responsibility and simply accept authority all too easily. Those societies based upon legitimization systems, such as the Roman Catholic Church, as seen most recently in their handling of the sexual abuse crisis, tend to work quite badly.

The fact is that in the last fifty years there have indeed been some disturbingly significant examples of “legitimately authorized” Buddhist Masters acting in such ways that one must question the usefulness of lineage. Recently, there seems to have been a spate of such abuse, (Richard Baker, Genpo Roshi, Shimano Roshi and way too many others) I will only address one, and that is the case of Yasutani Roshi who received “transmission” and was legitimated by the lineage system of the Soto Zen School two months after publishing a book on Dogen which is full of militarist and anti-Semitic propaganda. The book uses the teachings of Dogen to “support the war, deify the emperor, promote the superiority of Japan, foster anti-Semitism and encourage people to exterminate the enemy.”13 Included in his commentary on the First Precept is the following passage: “Failing to kill an evil man who ought to be killed, or destroying an enemy army that ought to be destroyed, would be to betray compassion and filial obedience, to break the precept forbidding the taking of life. This is a special characteristic of the Mahayana precepts.” Thankfully, most teachers within the Buddhist world do not hold this non-obvious “special characteristic”.
The merits of a system that rewards someone with its highest seal of approval and spiritual authority when he is confirmed in such warmongering attitudes are also non-obvious! It is clear that if the function and purpose of lineage is to offer a “guarantee” of someone’s enlightenment it has failed to do so – in this case at least. A guarantee that is unreliable is no guarantee at all. It seems to me that lineage, as an authentication system is not a system that was accepted by the Buddha and is not one he would have approved of. I believe that Buddhism is hindered, not served, by unnecessary mystification, and much of “transmission” and lineage reeks of mystification and obscuration. While I agree that people rarely become enlightened without spiritual teachers, it is ultimately the students who authenticate and authorize the teachers. It is our responsibility to, as the Dalai Lama points out, examine the teacher before committing to studying with him or her, and evaluate how he or she lives according to the discipline. An enlightened being is one who embodies the precepts, and if someone says they are above the precepts, they have not fully understood the Dharma.
What is perhaps even more troubling is the response of those who were given transmission by Yasutani to the uncovering of their teacher’s ideology. All seemed to defend Yasutani through various twists of non-obvious logic, but Jiun Kubota, the Third Patriarch of the Religious Foundation Sanbo-kyodan founded by Yasutani published an apology for his teacher’s expressions of support for war that still harbors what I feel is a dangerous doctrine. He states in his “apology” that Dharma and political ideology are two separate things and that Yasutani’s disciples were only interested in the dharma and not in the ideology. I reject this unequivocally. The task of the Dharma Teacher is, not to be perfect perhaps, but surely involves “imparting values, vision and inspiration that touch all aspects of the disciple’s lives.”14 The doctrine that says Dharma and social attitudes are unrelated is not what I understand to be the teachings of the Buddha.


The farmer channels water to his land.
The fletcher whittles his arrows.
And the carpenter turns his wood.
So the wise man directs his mind.15

Statements attributed to Hui-neng that echo the statements from Shen-hui’s Discourses as quoted above, and other statements such as, “Do not say there is a difference between stabilization coming first and then producing insight, and insight coming first and then producing stabilization. Those who entertain this view are dualistic in their doctrine;”16 and “Deluded people stick to the appearances of things: they cling to the idea of absorption in one practice as only meaning constantly sitting unmoving, not letting the mind be aroused at random. They identify this with absorption in one practice, but those who make this interpretation are equivalent to inanimate objects,”17 as well as his response to Shen-hsiu’s student, Chih-ch’eng who asserts that Shen-hsiu “instructs people to stop the mind, and contemplate quietude, sitting constantly without lying down” by saying, “Stopping the mind and contemplating quietude is pathological: it is not Ch’an. Sitting all the time constricts the body – how does it help toward truth?”18 have led many to conclude that Hui-neng and Shen-hui swept aside all meditation and rejected sitting practice.

However, if this is so, we would find ourselves in the awkward position of studying and honoring the teaching of a teacher while practicing the complete opposite, for as anyone who has ever practiced in any Zen tradition knows, sitting meditation is central to practice. We would have to conclude, based upon this fact, that Hui-neng’s ideas were completely ignored by later Ch’an teachers. Yet, as Hui-neng makes it explicitly clear in his response to Fa-ta regarding the latter’s recitation practice, Hui-neng was criticizing the method, not the meditation. He was criticizing the attachment to the form of practice, whether the ritualized and unmindful recitation of sutras, or the limiting of meditation to formalized sitting practice; he was basically saying that it can be and must be “practiced” at all times. Hui-neng was attempting to correct the rather common misperception of meditation practice as being completely immobile, thoughtless and actionless.  As he asserts in The Platform Sutra, “Freedom from form means detachment from forms in the midst of forms. Freedom from thought means having no thoughts in the midst of thoughts,”19 which is no more than the central teaching of The Diamond Sutra that first startled Hui-neng into spontaneous realization, “Let your mind flow freely without dwelling on anything.”

Indeed, within Hui-neng’s teaching of the “Five Perfumes,” he says, “Once one’s own mind is not fixated on anything, good or bad, it will not do to sink into vacuity and keep to quiescence; one should study broadly and learn a lot, (emphasis added) recognizing one’s own original mind and master the principles of the buddhas, harmonize enlightenment to deal with people, free from egoistic personality, unchanging right up to the attainment of the true nature of enlightenment.”20 This is a wonderful prescription for “engaged practice,” and the obviousness of the non-dual nature of dharma and politics, among other things. It also puts to rest that Hui-neng completely rejected scholarship.

And yet, the truth is, this teaching which is often claimed by Ch’an as one of its great innovations over the original Indian Buddhist tradition is already present in some of the earliest teachings of the Buddha as we find in the Anapanasati and Satipatthana Suttas where the Buddha tells us that we should be able to practice full awareness when sitting, walking, lying down and standing. He goes on to include everything from eating to defecation, making it obvious and quite clear that nothing of our moment-to-moment experience is to be excluded from practice.

The great Theravadin Vipassana teacher, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu concludes his commentary on the Anapanasati Sutta with a discussion of the three qualities needed for correct practice: stability, purity, and readiness. He tells us, “This kind of concentration can be used not only in formal meditation practice but in any of the necessary activities of life… Obviously, concentration is more than sitting like a lump of rock or a block of wood – stiff, rigid, and dead to the world. Instead, with concentration, the citta is perfectly ready to perform its duty, namely, to grow in knowledge and understanding from moment to moment.”21 He concludes by emphasizing “the essential point: when the mind is in samadhi, we can walk or stand or sit or lie down or work or taste the fruit of our labor or help others or help ourselves… One who has samadhi (is) able to perform every kind of duty.”22 This seems to perfectly coincide with Hui-neng’s exhortation above to “study broadly and learn a lot, harmonizing enlightenment to deal with people.”


There are trivial truths and the great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.
-- Niels Bohr23

We used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two. We are finding that we must first learn a great deal more about ‘and.’
-- Sir Arthur Eddington24

In the dialogue between Hui-neng and Fa-tu alluded to above, Hui-neng continues to tell Fa-tu, “indeed, the scripture clearly tells you, ‘There is only one vehicle of buddhahood, no other vehicle, no two or three… The countless expedients, various stories, metaphors, and expressions, these teachings are all for the sake of the one vehicle of buddhahood.’ Why do you not realize that the three vehicles are provisional, being for the past, while the one vehicle is real, being for the present? I am only teaching you to leave the provisional and return to the real. After you return to the real, the real has no name either.”25 This point made by Hui-neng goes right to the heart of both the “gradual versus sudden enlightenment” debate and the difficulties raised by Hui-neng’s and the Ch’an tradition extolling the notions of “Buddha-nature” and “intrinsic enlightenment.”

Dating from the early 1990s, a movement that has come to be known as “Critical Buddhism” arose in Japan as a strong critique of the Soto Zen tradition, and as it is this tradition that has had such a tremendous influence on the Western interpretation and practice of Buddhism, its arguments present us with a serious challenge. While I do not agree with all the points raised by the Critical Buddhists, much of what they have to say relates to my initial difficulty with the teaching of Hui-neng as presented in The Platform Sutra.

The Critical Buddhists assert that the teaching of Buddha Nature “is not Buddhist.” They say that this idea and others closely related to it were introduced into Buddhism over 500 years after the Buddha’s own time and hinder the radical critique and program of the Buddha’s original teaching. They argue that these concepts were made to accommodate popular spirituality first in India, and then particularly in China.

Among the main elements of “popular spirituality” that have in the Critical Buddhist view been incorporated into Buddhism are:

* Belief in an underlying, eternal, transcendental unity in the world called God, Tao, the Great Spirit or what have you.   
* Belief in an underlying, immortal, transcendental unity in the person called a soul, spirit, atma, self, etc.
* Belief that these metaphysical entities are superior, magical and more real than the things of the ordinary world.
* Because of this metaphysical reality, although bad things may happen in the world, it is really all right because the world and what happens in it are less real.
* A sense that those who believe in this metaphysical reality are “saved.”

This then is the basic structure of what the Critical Buddhists call “popular spirituality” found throughout the world in various particularities. At the other extreme are those who reject this whole idea and assert materialism, that is to say, that there is no metaphysical realm and because of this it matters not what one believes or does. Pleasure then is thought to be the only guide to action. The Buddha rejected both these positions, and this is one of the reasons his teaching is referred to as the Middle Way. The challenge, as articulated by Vasubandhu in the early fourth century is to distinguish the middle from the extremes.

The problem with these “popular spirituality” ideas is that they collude to put people in a less responsible position vis a vis their life and the situation they find in the world. These metaphysical ideas can even be used to support social discrimination, since the metaphysical realm is hierarchical itself. This is just how it was used in the time of the Buddha (and even, sadly today) to justify the caste system that the Buddha, rejecting the metaphysical basis, also rejected. As he put it, people are not “chosen” or “born noble,” but it is by one’s actions that one becomes noble. The Critical Buddhists assert that Buddhism was and should remain a critical countercurrent that can arise within different religious contexts and that to align itself with such creeds, as just another religion may be a serious mistake.

The main issue I would like to address is that of the concept of the “dhatuvada.”  The Sanskrit word “dhatu” means “ constructing element,” and any teaching that asserts that underlying manifest reality as we experience it is a more fundamental, metaphysical substratum is referred to as “Dhatuvada.” An example of a Dhatuvada is Brahmanism (Brahman is the substratum) and another is the Tao of Taoism. Two related notions the Critical Buddhists challenge are the concepts of Buddha Nature and the concept of original or inherent enlightenment. These concepts evolved in China as Buddhism assimilated ideas from Taoism. The related idea of the tathagata-garbha arose in India and influenced the other two concepts. The scenario for how this happened over time is something like this:

* The tathagata-garbha concept entered into Mahayana Buddhism to appease those who wanted to be Buddhists but couldn’t or wouldn’t give up some of their Brahmanical ideas. The tathagata-garbha clearly is a re-working of the Vedic idea of Hiranya-garbha.
* The Buddha Nature concept derived from tathagata-garbha appeasing and making more palatable to the Chinese who were acculturated with Taoist ideas.
* Inherent Enlightenment gives even fuller expression to Taoist thought in China.
* Finally, in Japan the idea of inherent enlightenment was extended to include even insentient objects through the influence of Shintoism. This is an idea that has no basis in canonical texts and is often cited as the epitome of the distinctively Japanese approach to Buddhism, as expressed in the popular slogan, “even the grasses, trees, mountains and rivers all attain Buddhahood.”

So, what does it matter? Isn’t this an example of Buddhism’s flexibility and tolerance for other cultures? Hasn’t Buddhism become enriched rather than made poorer for its assimilation of these ideas from the cultures it has become exposed to? No, say the Critical Buddhists, because they say these ideas detract from the Buddha’s emphasis on personal responsibility, karma, and clarity of understanding, as well as having been used to support the arrogant, nationalist spirituality that accommodates itself to oppressive world powers all too easily, and to rationalize all manners of social discriminatory practices.

As Niels Bohr’s quote that opens this section states, I think that they are right, and that these concepts can be useful, if we remember Hui-neng’s advice not to get attached to the form. The “gradual versus sudden” debate has its basis in the idea of “inherent enlightenment” and Buddha Nature. The idea of “original enlightenment” first arose in China in the fourth century in the text The Awakening of Mahayana Faith. Originally thought to have originated in Sanskrit, modern scholarship now recognizes that the text was written in Chinese, and there was no Indian version. The tathagata-garbha concept arose in India in texts that use positive language to describe the ability of all beings to attain enlightenment. The mainstream understanding is simply that all people, including corrupt or evil people, can become enlightened in the future. A later interpretation treated the tathagata-garbha as some kind of self-existent soul. In Tibet, there are in fact two different readings of the Tathagatagarbha Sutra along these two lines of interpretation. The non-soul one is, of course, the older.

In China, intrinsic enlightenment became aligned with the notion of Buddha Nature, a Chinese notion that reflected essentially Taoist ideas. In fact, early Buddhist missionaries to China utilized many Taoist notions to combat the conservative thrust of Confucianism that rejected Buddhism as “un-Chinese.” The presentation of Buddhism that included the ideas of intrinsic enlightenment and Buddha Nature allowed it to spread throughout China and those lands within the Chinese zone of cultural influence.
In India these ideas never took root, with tathagata-garbha merely signifying that enlightenment is always possible and for all beings. As one Indian text puts it, “ordinary people have tathagata-garbha whereas buddhas do not,” which is to say we who are ordinary have the potential for enlightenment, while buddhas really are enlightened. If we do not take Hui-neng’s pronouncements of “essence of mind” as literally referring to a dhatu (that which is an “only real” essence or substratum to empirical existence) we could read his statement “When they’re deluded, buddhas become beings. When they’re awake, beings become buddhas”26   in this same vein.

Hui-neng uses many phrases in the Platform Sutra that sound very much like essentialist statements. It has always been a tendency for people to reify ideas and concepts, making “emptiness” for instance into “The Void,” as if emptiness were just another word for Tao, or Godhead or Brahman. Nagarjuna’s dialectic, echoing The Diamond Sutra’s approach reminds us that emptiness is not to be found outside of the 10,000 things. Tang Hoi the 10th century Vietnamese Zen Master told his students, “Be diligent in order to attain the state of no-birth and no-death.” He was asked by a student, “Where can we touch the world of no-birth and no-death?” Tang Hoi responded, “Right here in the world of birth and death.”27 Thus we can see that there is a difference between the monistic notions of “The One” and the highest teaching of the non-dual nature of reality as taught in The Diamond Sutra.


If you do not comprehend the middle way, but see and hear and think and ponder, fixated on the externals of doctrine, talking about the conduct of Buddha without applying it in your own mind, that is called thinking.
Confused people who sit in meditation frantically trying to get rid of illusion and do not learn kindness, compassion, joyfulness, equanimity, wisdom, and expedient skills, and so are like wood or stone, without any function, are called nonthinking.

The above quotation from Hui-neng’s commentary on The Diamond Sutra elucidates that text’s profound teaching of non-attachment to forms and concepts, and points out that to become a buddha is to act as a buddha. Our problem as students of the Buddha is we do, repeatedly, allow ourselves to get caught in thinking and non-thinking. We get caught in our notions about reality and fail to see through and beyond the cage of self that is created though our identification with the thinking mind. This is not to say, once again, that we must stop thinking. Hui-neng makes it plain that to do so is to become as insentient at a block of wood or a stone. The Dhammapada tells us that our work is to discover our work and then to give ourselves to it with all our heart. It tells us, “So awake, reflect, watch. Work with care and attention. Live in the way, and the light will grow in you.”29

When we learn in the Platform Sutra that Hui-neng was chosen over Shen-hsiu, many have taken this to mean that the poem of Shen-hsiu was wrong. Yet all evidence points to the truth that his poem literally states the obvious – that we do indeed need to practice in order to clear the mind of the hindrances. Even Hui-neng tells us in his commentary to The Diamond Sutra that while “there are no habit forces or afflictions; nirvana means complete purity, it is attained only by extinguishing all habit energies.” Hui-neng’s poem may indeed state the non-obvious truth from the enlightened perspective, but if we stop there and do not cultivate that wisdom and vision, we are caught in thinking. If we do not act from the awareness of buddhahood, than we are caught in nonthinking.

The Diamond Sutra is clear that the bodhisattva is unsparing in his or her work to liberate all beings. And it is equally clear in reminding us that there is no self to do the liberating and no others to liberate. “All beings” includes all the states of mind we “inhabit” or manifest throughout any given day – throughout any given hour! Our task is to liberate all the beings in our own mind.

In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “When you begin to practice, you need some tools, just as someone who comes to work on a farm needs tools to work the soil. When you are given tools there is no use in having them and not working the soil… Certain ideas and images can be accepted as tools of spiritual practice. By using them you can acquire some peace, comfort, stability, and joy. If you continue the practice and make some progress, more sophisticated images and ideas will be provided. These are tools to help you explore the soil of your own life. The Buddha described the practice as citta-bhavana, cultivating the mind and heart.”30

Thay issues a warning that echoes that of the Critical Buddhists when he points out that many Buddhists (and Christians) do not truly practice – or if they do, they practice only in difficult times or it is a mere superficial practice. He says that many practitioners align themselves with those in power in order to strengthen the position of their church or community. “They build up a self instead of letting go of the ideas of self. This is a very dangerous attitude; it always leads to conflicts and war. Its nature is intolerance.”31

The Diamond Sutra teaches that the Tathagata cannot be seen through sounds or images. The Tathagata neither comes nor goes. “Great Doubt” in Zen practice involves the constant questioning of all our beliefs. This includes questioning all our notions about Buddha, nirvana, emptiness, self, no-self, god etc. Thomas Merton wrote, “Here we are advancing beyond the stage where God made himself accessible to our mind in simple and primitive images. Here He becomes present without any image, beyond any satisfactory mental representation. ”32 There is no longer any notion we can have that can represent God, just as there is no longer any notion that can represent suchness or nirvana – both words that point to a reality beyond the cessation of all notions. But this need not be posited as a transcendental substratum or dhatu – what are transcended are the notions that stand between us and reality. But even saying this is not right, because there never is or could be a “real” separation.
Prajnaparamita is the wisdom that goes beyond all that keeps us intimately aware of all that is; beyond  our ideas about reality and how reality is or should be so that we can be intimately engaged with what and how things really are. It is the direct realization of what is beyond all representations in the way that a night in New York City is beyond any and all maps representing it. It is the simply realization that we've no representation for whether the candle flame now is the same or different from the flame of five minutes ago. It offers the warning against taking the map for the land, the finger for the moon to which it points.

The Buddha in The Diamond Sutra could not be any clearer when he tells us, through his dialogue with Subhuti, “Those who know that the teaching of the good law is like a raft abandon it. How much more do they abandon that which is not the teaching.”33          


1 Steve Hagen, How The World Can Be The Way It Is (Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1995), p.17
2 Thomas Cleary, The Sutra of Hui Neng Grand Master of Zen (Boston: Shambhala, 1998), p.10
3  ibid., p. 11
4 Stephan Schuhmacher & Gert Woerner, The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (Boston: Shambhala, 1994), p. 148
5 ibid., p. 148
6 Hagen, op. cit., p. 249
7 Philip Yampolsky, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch ( NY: Columbia University Press, 1967), p. 2
8 ibid., p. 4
9 ibid., p. 4
10 ibid., pp. 32-33
11 ibid., p. 33
12 Bhikkhu Nanamoli, The Life of the Buddha (Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1992 3rd. edition), p.299
13 David Brazier, The New Buddhism (NY: Palgrave, 2002), p. 162
14 ibid., p. 177
15 Thomas Byrom, The Dhammapada (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), p. 24
16 Cleary, op. cit., p. 31
17 ibid., p. 32
18 ibid., p. 61
19 ibid., p. 32
20 ibid., p. 38
21 Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Mindfulness with Breathing (Boston: Wisdom, 1997 Rev. Edition), p. 85
22 ibid., p. 86
23 Hagen, op. cit., p. 251
24 ibid., p. 109
25 Cleary, op. cit., p. 49
26 Red Pine, The Diamond Sutra (NY: Counterpoint, 2001), p. 82
27 Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1998), p. 130
28 Cleary, op. cit., p. 93
29 Byrom, op. cit., p. 8
30 Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (NY: Riverhead, 1995), p. 162
31 ibid., p. 169
32 ibid., p. 170
33 The Buddhist Publishing Group, The Diamond Sutra (Leicester, England: Buddhist Publishing Group, 1984), p. 10   


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