Category Archives: Chan Buddhism

The Long Buddha Shortened: The Supreme Net

This is the first in a series of my distillations of the Long Discourses of the Buddha (the Digha Nikaya), the Buddha’s original teachings shortened for easy reading.

In the first of the Long Discourses, the Brahmajala Sutta (The Supreme Net), the Buddha is traveling with 500 monks from town to town, and unwittingly followed by Suppiya, a teacher who criticizes the Buddha, and Brahmadatta, Suppiya’s student who praises the Buddha.  It seems that positive and negative opinions and arguments about the Buddha follow him and his followers wherever they go.  They all stop for a night at a park with shade and water provided by royalty and guarded with  a wall for travelers to rest along their way.  In the morning, followers of the Buddha were talking about how wonderful it is for the Buddha to be aware of the varied opinions that follow him.

The Buddha hears them and says that they should not be angry with anyone who criticizes him, his teachings or his followers, as this will hold them back and prevent them from seeing if the criticism is right or wrong.  Rather, they should explain what is wrong with the criticism.  Similarly, they should not be pleased by those who give praise, as that will also hold them back.  Rather, they should explain what is right with the praise.  The Buddha says that only foolish, worldly people praise him for abandoning violence, sex, lies, entertainment, luxury, property, and servants, for doing the right thing and saying the right thing at the right time and to the right extent.  Only foolish, worldly people criticize his opponents, such as the Hindu Brahmins, for acting in ways that lead to addiction and destruction, speaking about useless things, claiming to know what others do not in debate, running errands for those in power or misleading others with expert advice and fortune telling.  

Rather, there are other things that are hard to see and beyond ordinary thought that the wise can know that do deserve praise.  Neither discipline nor reason can reveal these things.  The particular knowledge that these practices reveal leads to further birth and death, but being unattached to this itself is to know true peace and freedom.  Each time the world is reborn, God (Brahma) becomes lonely and creates the other gods and beings.  Later, those who seek wisdom beyond the home discover that things are impermanent, pleasure is addictive and logical reasoning gives stability to the ideas of the mind, and they split into those who believe that the self and world are permanent and those who do not (“Eternalists and Non-Eternalists”, also the “Infinitists and Finitists”).

Some argue that things are permanent, others that things are impermanent, others that things are both permanent one way but impermanent another, and others that things are neither in any particular way.  (These are the Catuskoti of Nagarjuna.)  Similarly there are those who debate whether we know what is good or bad, those who debate whether or not there is life after death in another world beyond this one, those who debate whether things happen by chance or necessity, and those who debate whether enlightenment and freedom are here now or somewhere else.

These “wriggly eels” on each side evade questions in debate that they can’t answer.  Those who take one side against the other do not see the fear and chaos that makes them and the other cling to one side, nor do they see that clinging to one side will not bring them peace or safety, but merely trap them in a vast, intricate net, like a fish too large to swim between the knots.  When anyone sees what is beyond all these sides, they see what only the wise can see, the supreme net of all possibly viewpoints and the superior victory over all battles.

Zen Speaks by Tsai Chih Chung

Zen Speaks is a modern collection of Zen stories and koans by the author and artist Tsai Chih Chung that I highly recommend which contains wonderful cartoon renderings of many of the koans and stories we’ve already covered.  I just found out that you can watch the entire work as a cartoon in Cantonese with English subtitles on YouTube.

Two Water Buffalo

Kanzan and Jittoku zen


In the Zen koan collection The Gateless Gate, Zhaozhou found the sages Kanzan and Jittoju while wandering on Mount Tiantai and said, “For a long time I have heard about Kanzan and Jittoju, but having come here I just see two water buffalo.”  The sages put their fingers on their heads like horns.  The master waved his arms at them and said, “Shoo!  Shoo!”  The sages gnashed their teeth and glared at each other, happy to become water buffalos when accused but reluctant to leave when shooed.  When asked about this later, Zhaozhou laughed heartily and said nothing.  When Linji compared Pahua to a donkey Pahua brayed at him, and Linji called a monk who mooed at him, “This beast!”  If you asked these masters an educated, scholarly question you would likely be ridiculed, but if you acted like an untamed animal you just might meet their approval.

Two Water Buffalo

Kanzan jittoku screen japan

This gong-an is very simple and short, but like the rest it contains meanings that sprout up when you look them over carefully and consider that for thousands of years these particular cases were preserved as teaching devices.  We typically pick humans over water buffalos, so calling two sages water buffalos is insulting, even if it is innocent and playful, like the sages response to effortlessly take up the role of water buffalo, a muddy and supposedly dimwitted beast.  If we are all somewhat water buffalo, why not embrace it?  It is very easy to miss that after Zhaozhou shoos them, they refuse, which is moving from obeying Zhaozhou to disobeying Zhaozhou.  However, once this thought occurs, it then opens up to the next thought that a disobedient water buffalo is a ‘good’ water buffalo in that it is more true to life, so when Kanzan and Jittoju disobey, are they obeying Zhaozhou or not?  Zhaozhou simply laughs.  Is it more obedient to the universe to be a crazy beast or a polite and proper person?

broken vase

It is quite human to be inhumane.  Is a broken, unusable vase still a vase?  If not, why call it such?  How can our minds share these negative forms, what Hegel could call determinate negation, so easily and fluidly?  Consider this mere image, two blind men on a log bridge, by the Rinzai Zen master Hakuin:

Hakuin two blind men crossing log bridge

zen teachings of hakuin

Now consider this cover art here, with only the first blind man .  You would think of the second only if you were familiar with the first image, which anyone familiar with the image would know, just as effortlessly.  However, in looking into these things, and looking specifically for an image that has the end of the log hanging in space as it is on this cover, it turns out that the image on this cover is actually one of three blind men crossing a bridge, a cropped portion of a completely different painting by Hakuin of the same theme, blind men crossing a log bridge.  Here is the third image below:

blind men crossing a log bridge hakuin

Hakuin might ask us:  What does the blindness of these men look like?  Perhaps it looks like the slippery feeling of being blindfolded on a wet, algae-covered log suspended over a rushing stream that cannot be seen, either by us or by these blind images.


Zen Cake

zen garden birthday cakeIn Zen Buddhism, the 77th case of the Blue Cliff Record is cake.  A monk asked Yunmen, “What is talk that goes beyond buddhas and patriarchs?”  Yunmen said, “Cake.”  He makes us think of cake, imagining it’s sweetness, texture and satisfaction, a strange ghost that can be raised with a single word, somewhat like the ghosts of ancestors.  The thought of a cake is both a cake and not a cake, much as a rock is sometimes a rock and sometimes the thought of a rock, and thus not a rock.  Whether or not this has anything to do with the buddhas and patriarchs, it certainly has to do with cake.


One Didn’t Get Wet

rain bridge japanese printA Zen master posed his monks with a problem: “Two monks went walking in the rain.  One didn’t get wet.  Why?”  The monks suggested that one had an umbrella, that the rain was scattered in places, that one walked under the cover of awnings, but the master said that the students were too focused on the words.  When the monks finally gave up, the master told them that both got wet.  “Two monks went walking in the rain.  One didn’t get wet.  Two got wet.”

The joke works just as well in ancient Chinese as it does in modern English because language has grey areas and ambiguities.  When the master said, “One didn’t get wet”, he could mean that it is the case that one didn’t get wet, such that one remained dry, or he could mean that it isn’t the case that one got wet, rather two got wet.  All of the solutions proposed by the monks assumed that one didn’t get wet, the first case, making them blind to the second.  It isn’t that the first case is the literal meaning of the words and the second metaphorical or derivative, but rather that we do not expect to hear about one monk and not the other if both got wet or both stayed dry.  The joke would also work if the master said both stayed dry, as one didn’t get wet, and the other didn’t get wet either.