World Religions 7: East Asian Buddhism & Zen
Buddhism in Tibet
Tibetan culture was transformed by Buddhism, which arrived from India, Afghanistan and China shortly after 600 CE. Mahayana Buddhism became not only Tibet’s official religion but its social structure, art and architecture as well.
The Tibetan written characters were created to translate Buddhist texts into the Tibetan language. Many Mahayana texts, including Nagarjuna’s, survived in Tibet as Islam took over India. Tibetans claim that Buddhism arrived centuries earlier, when the Buddha himself and other Buddhas came to Tibet to teach. One amusing story has Buddha asking about Tibet before journeying there, and he is told that the Tibetans are the nicest people ever. Buddha worries that if the Tibetans are so extraordinarily nice, he will lose his finely honed ability to deal with jerks, so he takes along a terrible tea servant who constantly mocks the Buddha and plays tricks on him.
Buddhism developed into many competing schools of thought in Tibet as it had in India and did in China, Japan and throughout Asia. Tibetan Buddhism is known for its elaborate rituals, tantric practices, meditation exercises, and systems of symbols, deities and demons. Tibetans believe that many demons were converted to Buddhism by great teachers, and so much artwork features demons who are protectors of Buddhism, its teachings and the community. Gazing at these demons, and similarly at skull bowls of blood, decapitated heads and other horrifying images is thought to purify the self of obstructions and identify with the lowest and most horrifying levels of the self and mind.
Soon after Tibetan Buddhism was established, there was an influx of Chinese Chan (Zen, in the Japanese, which we will briefly cover today and move to koans exclusively in two weeks). Controversy arose between those who supported the elaborate Buddhist practices and those, including many nobles, who supported the simplicity of Zen, which taught that enlightenment could be achieved suddenly and without elaborate ceremonies and practices. Zen Buddhists do traditionally believe in deities and practice ceremonies, but meditation and enlightenment became the primary and simple focus. Interestingly, here in the Bay Area and in America the Beatniks loved Zen and its stark black and white imagery, while Hippies, many who did embrace Zen, were drawn to the colorful and elaborately beautiful art and practices of Tibetan Buddhism and Indian Hinduism. Legend has it that after a debate judged by the Tibetan King in 979 CE between both sides, the Chinese and their school was expelled and the King officially pronounced the Indian Nagarjuna to be affixed as patriarch of Tibetan Buddhism in opposition to Bodhidharma, the patriarch of Chan/Zen.
Between 1200 and 1500, many schools of Tibetan Buddhism arose in debate with each other over the vast store of Indian texts which survived only in Tibet. Education in Tibetan Buddhism largely consists of the memorization of texts and debate with others about various understandings of the texts and their teachings. Good debaters would achieve fame and following, much like athletes and celebrities today. Many debates revolved around the controversial concepts of emptiness and buddha-nature. As untranslated texts were being translated, schools based on the new texts (Gsar-ma) entered into debate with older schools based on the earlier translated and established texts (Rnin-ma).
According to modern scholarship, some of both the old and the new texts were never original Indian texts at all, but were written in Tibet and “discovered” by various figures at various times. Similar “discoveries” occurred in China and Japan with the development of Buddhism there. New schools would arise, and a member would “discover” a text hidden in a log or a cave that just happened to support their doctrines and argue against the doctrines of competing schools. Tibetans view Buddhism as evolving in India into the final form of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka school, and then each Tibetan school views this tradition as evolving in Tibet into their own position. This is very similar to Chan/Zen, each school viewing itself as the final evolution. As mentioned, this ‘final form’ takes drastically different forms in various places.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol) has attracted a following in Europe and America, first among scholars such as the Theosophists and the psychoanalyst Karl Jung, who noted the similarities with the Egyptian Book of the Dead in his search for the primordial archetypes of the common human psyche, and later with Timothy Leary and hippies who viewed psychedelic experiences as a death and rebirth. The text is to be read to the dying and then to the corpse in the days after death to help it be released from rebirth and achieve nirvana. Again and again, the text implores the dead to embrace the clear light from above which appears bright and frightening to the ignorant, who prefer the dull light from below. Embracing the clear light, which they are now ‘set face to face’ with, results in liberation, while running into the softer dim light means being reborn in the world of suffering and desire.
In a series of talks in 2010, the Dalai Lama spoke to an audience on the need for compassion and discipline across religious and secular lines, and then taught from Nagarjuna’s central texts. We have already discussed Nagarjuna, and his importance for Tibetan Buddhism as well as Mahayana Buddhism across North East Asia. He says that the golden age of ancient Indian should be a model of how many religions and philosophies can coexist together. He says that he believes that only Buddhism truly believes in anatman, the absence of a permanent self, but he will ask Jain leaders about this at a Jain ceremony and series of dialogues he is going to attend in a month. He also mentions that some Jains attend these conferences completely naked, and giggles for awhile about it. He also mentions that religions such as Christianity and Islam which believe in heaven do believe in a permanent self, but neither he nor they know what this is for sure.
Teaching from the Nagarjuna texts, he says that the true self has no self particular to itself at all, and that through study, critical reflection, and meditation, as we saw last time, one can come to a greater and greater realization of this deepest level of reality. He follows Nagarjuna who criticizes the Yogachara or Mind Only school for maintaining a duality between mental conceptions and mind, saying that form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. Rather than ridding the mind of mental conceptions, we become not only the mental conceptions but the conceptions they oppose to realize mind. Realizing interdependence means maintaining distinctions while simultaneously overcoming them. This is the true cleansing of realization. Just as Buddha criticized Jains for trying to get rid of the self as a conception, Nagarjuna is criticizing the Yogachara for trying to get rid of conception, including the self. Negation of concepts is not their annihilation, but accepting the things that they negate. Overcoming the self is not annihilation of the self, but acceptance of the other as the self through compassion.
On a final political note, Tibet is currently occupied and claimed by China. While the Tibetan nobility did not treat the common people very well, a major factor that allowed the Communists to invade and take over, the Tibetans begged the Americans to help them and arm them against China, but American CIA agents evaluated the situation and did not see much value in protecting the vast Tibetan desert lands, allowing Tibet to fall to China. Two years later, the world’s largest deposit of uranium was discovered in the Tibetan and Khazakstani mountains, putting this in Soviet Russian and Communist Chinese control. If those deposits had been discovered two years earlier, it is likely that America would have protected the Tibetans and Tibet would be free today.
Buddhism in China & Japan
We will cover the Period of the Hundred Schools (600-200 BCE) and the Han unification of China (220 BCE – 200 CE) at the beginning of the second half of the class before we cover Confucianism, Moism, and Daoism. The short story, to introduce Buddhism in China, is that many schools of thought flourished in the warring period before the Han unification of China, and that with the arrival of the Han dynasty came royal patronage and support for Confucianism and Daoism. In the latter half of the Han dynasty, between 65 and 200 CE, the third most prominent school of Chinese thought, Buddhism, began to spread and settle in China, arriving from India and central Asia.
The Han was a prosperous time, when there was much new money and much interest in philosophy and study and patronizing the arts and temples. The old moneyed families, the new money families coming up, and the scholars were now competing and collaborating voices. By the later half of the Han, there were 30,000 students at the government funded state university, where primarily Confucianism and other classic texts were studied.
Unfortunately, Confucianism had become a new orthodoxy, and skeptical calls for revisions as well as the weakening of Han power had many scholars looking to Daoism, particularly the two main texts of the Dao De Jing and the Zhuang Zi we will study, as well as other systems such as the paradoxical Logicians and authoritarian Legalists for new solutions and understandings to old problems just as Buddhism was coming over the border. The peasants, who were increasingly desperate, turned to Daoist religious communities of worship in large numbers and rebellions were common. The largest were the Yellow Turban rebellions of 184 and 189 CE which sought land and food distribution for the people. The Han triumphed and put down the rebellions, but infighting soon pulled the Han apart again once it was no longer unified against the Yellow Turbans. This power vacuum allowed Buddhism to take hold and thrive.
Daoism offered the strongest alternative for both the elite scholars and the common devotional communities. They centered on the ideals of a return to nature and the natural, the freedom of the community and individual from abuse of authority, and the absolute as mystical One. Buddhism increasingly offered an alternative also in line with these ideals. Some early Daoist tales sound much like later Buddhist koan stories. Liu Ling, a Daoist master, was often drunk and sometimes lay around completely naked, and when several men entered his house and saw him in this state, he replied, “Heaven and earth are my dwelling, and my house is my pants…What are you all doing in my pants?”. As uplifting as these stories were, the Daoists offered little structure for reordering society, some retreating into nature, others ignoring local tyrants or turning to religious devotion and ecstasy.
Buddhism was at first regarded as a strange foreign form of Daoism. The two fought and supported each other alternatively for centuries afterward. In spite of their profound similarities, centrally skepticism of human understandings and transcendence of attachment in the unification of all, Indian and Chinese language and culture had profound differences as well. Chinese language uses short terms, while Indian language strings incredibly long and complicated terms together. Similarly, Chinese philosophy values brevity and expresses itself in simple, concrete metaphors, while Indian philosophy values comprehensiveness and expresses itself in complex and abstract analysis.
A comparison of Daoist and Buddhist texts shows this immediately. Compare the metaphor of the well frog in the Zhuangzi with the middle length discourses of the Buddha on the categories of existence and how each is inherently empty. Consider that Buddhists would refer to ‘perfection’, while Daoists would refer to being ‘round’, Buddhists would refer to ‘one’s true nature’, while Daoists would refer to ‘one’s original face’, and Buddhists would refer to ‘essence’, while Daoists would refer to ‘the pupil of the eye’. This was the same situation when Buddhism arrived in Japan around 550 CE, Daoism and Confucianism having arrived long before. The Japanese understood Buddhism in a Daoist natural world context.
Socially Chinese and Indian cultures were also at odds. Chinese society was familial, seeking value in the worldly prosperity of the family. Indian Buddhism valued the otherworldly, and advocated leaving the home in pursuit of enlightenment in the monastery. While Daoism did have its wandering and wilderness dwelling sages, this would be a sticking point for Buddhism for many centuries. Many competing Confucians and Daoists would routinely call for an expelling of the foreign culture that asked the young to abandon their families for the monastery. To overcome this, Buddhists, like Daoists, offered local communities support in education, medicine, and relief in times of crisis. Gradually, Daoism and Buddhism were interrelated, with the Buddhist Dharma (teaching) equated with the Dao (way), and Buddhist nirvana (liberation) equated with the Daoist wu-wei (non-action). These were crude equations, which were enriched over centuries of translation and scholarship.
Buddhist sutras continued to arrive from India, carried by both Indian and Chinese Buddhist monks on pilgrimages to spread the dharma. In architecture, the Indian stupa became the Chinese pagoda, one of the most common and recognizable forms of Chinese architecture. Chinese artists began portraying the Buddha and boddhisattvas in Chinese form. The Mahayana Completion of Wisdom sutras (Prajnaparamita sutras) were introduced, becoming the central texts of the most popular forms of Buddhism today, Chinese and Japanese Pure Land Buddhism, which focus on devotional chanting to bodhsattvas for good fortune and protection.
While Pure Land traditions were popular among common people and traditional noble families, the Chan (Chinese) or Zen (Japanese) tradition became popular among scholars and nobles who pursued philosophy, literature and the arts. The Pure Land tradition feeds off the faith practices of the Tiantai school, and the Chan/Zen feeds off the wisdom tradition of the Huayan school. Both teach the oneness of all things, but the Tiantai would say there are demons in the heavens and buddhas in the hells, while the Huayan say that One is All and All is One. Next week, we will exclusively study the Chan/Zen literature and the koan stories, some of my favorite philosophy texts. The history of Buddhism in Korea and Japan is also dominated by the duality of the Pure Land devotional traditions and the Chan/Zen meditation and koan practice.
In Japan, Amida (from the Indian Amitabha) worship reached a radical and popular form that bears interesting resemblances to Protestant Christianity. Shinran (1173-1262) founded one of the most popular forms of Japanese Buddhism, Jodoshinshu, which taught that other than the most dedicated sages human beings are too sinful to gain enlightenment, so the best way for all people to gain entrance to higher existence, in accord with the Mahayana tradition, was to rely entirely on the grace and power of Amida who could bring both the good and the bad to heavenly realms or pure lands. It is only in turning away from self accomplishment and entirely towards the salvation of all by grace that the most people could be saved from hell worlds. Shinran decided that no vow of celibacy would make much difference, and so he married and taught his priests to marry, for which he was persecuted for the rest of his life.
As texts arrived and were translated, the Chinese noticed that the Theravada and Mahayana had two different ideas of how one achieves enlightenment already mentioned. The Theravada teach that progress is gradual, much like the Confucians do, and that it is only study within the institution that brings slow and steady progress. The Mahayana teach that buddha-nature is already within, and that sudden breakthroughs and transcendent states are achievable by anyone, much like the Daoists do, and that this can occur either inside or outside of the institution. This dual understanding became complimentary but also developed into a conflict, the central conflict of the two schools of Chan/Zen and later a conflict within Neo-Daoism and Neo-Confucianism which had both subsumed much of Buddhism in later centuries.
All of this resulted in a vast expansion of Buddhism, among common devotional worshipers who sought refuge in new divinities, practices and communities, among scholars who found new philosophical concepts and texts to study and re-read, and among the wealthy who gave immense amounts for new temples, monasteries and monuments with new designs and appeal to secure their own fortune not only with the deities but with the populace. Daoist priests and Buddhist priests alike served communities and noble families, providing relief for the suffering of both the poor through charity and the rich through consolation. Buddhist organizations funded hospitals, low cost hostels for travelers, bridges, and trees planted beside popular roads.
Unfortunately, this allowed many Buddhist monasteries to become extraordinarily wealthy, which attracted unwanted attention from competing systems and rulers who were wary of rivals. It was not lost on the ruling powers that Buddhism, like Daoism, served as a popular center of power that could, and sometimes did, result in rebellion. Mahayana Buddhism in particular had teachings that could be interpreted as supporting rebellion, especially by those in the suffering countryside. In the last age, when the buddha Maitreya was expected foretold by signs, no government was legitimate and the world was soon to be reformed and reborn. Many rebellions used the color white, the color associated with Maitreya, as a symbol for their movements.
In some periods, Buddhism or Daoism was persecuted depending on patronage, while in other periods each received vast contributions and thrived. This is entirely similar to Catholic monasteries in Europe, who not only fought amongst themselves (Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits) after becoming wealthy civic centers of education, medicine and technology, but had to survive persecution of rulers who wanted their wealth as well. In later dynasties, after Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism were the three established schools of Chinese thought and were interwoven in official rituals and popular culture, rulers worked hard to work with Buddhist leadership, who had considerable sway over much of the population, while also making sure that they did not acquire too much unchecked power.
Around 1100 CE, Neo-Confucianism attempted to revive Confucianism to return it to its central place in society. While Zhu Xi, the greatest teacher of Neo-Confucianism, saw Buddhism as the enemy, he could not help but reincorporate Buddhist teachings such as the metaphors of the sun behind the clouds and the pearl at the bottom of the muddy pond, each implying that through study, as well as meditation, the inner truth and nature can be realized. While originally the term ‘li’ meant human order and tradition, in Neo-Confucianism Li became cosmic order, more like the Dharma of Buddhism and Dao of Daoism after being intertwined with Buddhism over centuries. While Confucius taught that one should benefit one’s own family as well as humankind, Neo-Confucians taught that one should benefit all conscious beings like Mahayana boddhisattvas. Wang Yang Ming (1472-1529 CE), one of the greatest Neo-Confucians who we will study, was called a Buddhist in disguise by his opponents for teaching Buddhist metaphors that were part of popular culture and sudden achievement of new understanding. Neo-Confucianism supported state funded hospitals, orphanages, homes for the elderly, and public cemeteries.
In the last two centuries, as China encountered Europeans, there were new favorable and unfavorable interpretations of Buddhism used to understand China’s relationship with the new foreigners. Some attempted to show that there was nothing new in European thought that could not be found in Buddhism, such as rationalism, humanism, democracy, dialectic, evolution, and later communism and existentialism. Others argued that Indian Buddhism and its transcendent visions had held China back such that it had not modernized as fast as Europe. Later, Chinese communists such as Mao would both condemn Buddhism as superstition of a past age as well as celebrate it as a common bond with Asia that transcended nationalism and demonstrated that Asia and the world could one day share a common culture.
Bodhidharma & the Birth of Zen
Because the Chan (Chinese) or Son (Korean) or Zen (Japanese) school continued to thrive in Japan, I will consistently use the Japanese names and terms in this lecture, even though Zen started as Chan in China. Zen means ‘sitting’, and the school concentrates not on the chanting of sutras or the support of deities but on meditation and study. It is known for using radical and unorthodox means, such as shouting, slapping, joking, and any other way of breaking through rigid understandings to achieve insight and enlightenment.
In Zen, we can see a mix of Indian abstract psychology with Chinese concrete analogy as we discussed last week. In particular, Zen is heavily influenced by Daoism and uses its teachings and metaphors regularly. Unlike Pure Land Buddhism and other schools of the Mahayana tradition, Zen originated in China and had no precedent in India according to modern scholarship. The Zen tradition, however, traces an unbroken chain of an “inexpressible transmission, outside the sutras” all the way back to the Buddha himself. It is considered the first koan, the first case, It serves not only as a historical record of the lineage but as an object of study for students. It appears in many koan collections, including The Gateless Gate, the most popular collection.
Once the Buddha came before the assembly to lecture, but instead of speaking held up a lotus flower. Everyone was silent, but Mahakashapa smiled. The Buddha said, “I have the eye of the true teaching, not expressible in words, but transmitted beyond teaching. I have given it to Mahakashapa.
According to the tradition, after Mahakashapa there were twenty six patriarchs who received the inexpressible transmission before Bodhidharma left India and traveled to China to spread the inexpressible there. Though this makes him the twenty eighth patriarch, he is called the fist patriarch of the Chinese tradition. In fact, it is quite likely that he was the first and the twenty six were invented after the tradition spread to link his own focus on sitting meditation to the original Buddha. In much of what follows, we will learn from the tradition as taught while remaining aware that modern scholarship has called much of the historical accuracy of each event into question today.
Bodhidharma came to southern China and is said to have arrived at the palace to speak with Emperor Wu, a great patron of Pure Land and other schools of Buddhism.
The emperor asked Bodhidharma, “I have built many temples, copied many books, and supported many monasteries of monks and nuns. What merit have I gained?” Bodhidharma replied, “None whatsoever. These things are shadows. Real merit is wisdom.” The emperor, taken aback, asked, “What is the principle of the sacred dharma?” Bodhidharma replied, “Everything is empty. Nothing is sacred.” The emperor, enraged, asked, “Who is this who stands before me?” Bodhidharma replied, “I do not know”, and left the palace.
Bodhidharma is said to have practiced wall-sitting, staring at a wall while meditating, which he did in caves and at the Shaolin monastery where he is also said to have started Kung Fu as a set of physical exercises for the monks there. Shaolin is known today to have been a Daoist god who became a Buddhist goddess, and it could be that Kung Fu is derived from earlier Daoist Tai Chi exercises, which may have been influenced by Indian yogic postures.
After Bodhidharma, Hui Neng (638 – 713 CE), the sixth patriarch, is the most revered in the tradition. He was an illiterate wood cutter from Canton who became enlightened on hearing a passage from the Diamond sutra and decided to join a monastery. Hongren, the fifth patriarch and master of the monastery told him that he was a southern barbarian, and could not expect to achieve buddhahood. Hui Neng replied that north and south make no difference with regard to buddha-nature, and the master accepted him. Hui Neng was ridiculed by other monks, but he continued to practice and achieve understanding. When the time came for Hongren to appoint a successor, he asked that monks write a verse to show what understanding of Zen they had achieved. The head monk, who was expected to become the successor, wrote:
The body is the Bodhi Tree. The mind is a clear mirror on a stand. Take care to wipe it continuously, Never letting dust cling
Late at night, Hui Neng had a boy read the verse to him and write the following reply:
There is no Bodhi Tree, Nor is there a stand with a mirror. All things are originally empty. Where can the dust cling?
According to the tradition, Hongren gave the lineage to Hui Neng, who went on to found the Southern School, the school that survived to become the tradition today. Modern scholarship has revealed that Hui Neng founded the school, but he may never have known Hongren. Hui Neng is said to have taught:
No permanence, no impermanence, no arrival, no departure, no exterior, no interior, no origination, no extinction.
Another famous even in Hui Neng’s story that is found as a koan for study in The Gateless Gate:
Two monks were arguing about a flag as Hui Neng was passing by. One monk was argued that the flag was moving, while the other argued that the wind was moving. Hui Neng replied, “It is your minds that are moving.”
Koans of The Gateless Gate
The Gateless Gate (Mumonkan in Japanese) was compiled by Wumen in 1228 for teaching at a monastic retreat. He claims that the collection, including the title, were thrown together without much thought. Along with The Blue Cliff Record, it is the most popular collection of koans in the tradition for hundreds of years. It contains many of the central moments of Zen.
A monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?” Joshu replied, “Not” (mu, ‘empty’ or ‘non-being’)
Gutei raised one finger whenever asked about Zen. A boy began imitating him, and when anyone would ask him about Gutei’s teaching he would raise one finger. Gutei saw him doing this, and cut off the boy’s finger. As the boy ran off screaming, Gutei called out to him. When the boy turned around, Gutei raised one finger, and the boy was enlightened.
Kyogen said, “Zen is like a man hanging in a tree by his teeth, asked ‘Why did Bodhidharma come to China from India?’ If the man does not answer, he fails, and if he does answer, he falls and loses his life. Now what shall he do?”
Joshu went to see a monk and asked him, “What is, is what?” The monk raised his fist. Joshu replied, “Ships cannot remain where the water is too shallow” and left. A few days later Joshu returned and asked him the same question. The monk raised a fist. Joshu said, “Well given, well taken, well killed, well saved” and bowed to the monk.
Zuigan would say to himself every day, “Master”, and answer, “Yes, sir””, “Become Sober”, “Yes Sir”, “And do not be deceived by others”, “Yes, sir. Yes sir.”
When Joshu was still studying with Nansen (Nanquan), Nansen saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. He took the cat and said, “If any of you can say a turning word, you can save the cat.” No one answered, and Nansen cut the cat in two. Later Joshu returned to the monastery and Nansen told him about it. Joshu removed his sandals, placed them on his head, and walked out. Nansen said, “If he had only been here, he could have saved the cat.”
Hyakujo decided to test the assembly and put a water vase on the ground. He asked, “Who can say what this is without calling its name?” The chief monk said, “No one can call it a wooden shoe.” Isan, the cook, kicked over the vase and walked out. Hyakujo smiled and said, “The chief monk loses.”
A monk asked Kembo, “All Buddhas of the universe enter by one road. Where is it?” Kembo drew the number one in the air and replied, “Here it is.” The monk went to Ummon and asked the same question. Ummon said, “This fan will reach to the 33rd heaven and hit the nose of the presiding deity there.”
Koans from The Blue Cliff Record
The Blue Cliff Record was compiled in the Song Dynasty in 1125 CE. It is the second most popular koan collection after The Gateless Gate, containing 100 koans, 82 of which were taken from the earlier koan collection, The Transmission of the Lamp. It has extensive commentaries written by generation after generation of Zen roshi (masters). The commentary is always amusing, as whenever someone seems to win, the commentary calls him the loser, as if to keep the student from ever settling down in conceptions.
Joshu said to the assembly, “The ultimate way is without difficulty. Just avoid picking and choosing. As soon as there are words spoken, ‘this is picking and choosing’, ‘this is clarity’. This old monk does not abide in clarity. Do you still preserve anything or not?” A monk asked, “Since you do not abide within clarity, what do you preserve?” Joshu replied, “I don’t know either.” The monk asked, “Since you don’t know, why do you say that you do not abide in clarity?” Joshu said, “It is enough to ask about the matter. Bow and withdraw.”
A monk asked, “What is the meaning of the patriarch coming from the West?” Hsiang Lin said, “Sitting for a long time becomes tiresome.”
The hermit of Lotus Flower Peak held up his staff before the assembly and said, “When the ancients got here, why didn’t they agree to stay here?” No one answered, so he replied, “Because they gained no strength on the path.” He then asked, “In the end, how is it?” No one answered, so he replied, “With my staff accross my shoulders, I pay no heed to people. I go straight into the endless mountains.”
A monk asked, “The many things return to the one. Where does the one return to?” Joshu said, When I was in the state of Chou, I made a hempen shirt. It weighed 7 pounds.”
The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu
Zhaozhou (778 – 897 CE), Joshu in Japanese, is my favorite Zen master of ancient China and the koan tradition. He trained with Nanquan (709 – 788 CE), and both appear in prominent positions in the Gateless Gate and Blue Cliff Record koan collections. The famous koan about Nanquan killing the cat with Joshu walking out was one of the most discussed koans in monasteries of China and Japan. In the Gateless Gate, Joshu’s famous koan about the dog’s buddha nature is the first koan of the collection and he is featured in five of the 48 of the collection. Joshu’s koan about “not picking and choosing” is the second case of the Blue Cliff Record. He is not in the official line from patriarch to patriarch, but he is one of the most famous Zen masters of the tradition in spite of this.
Joshu is a trickster, and it is debated whether he was inspired by Daoist sages. Many of his koan cases sound like jokes. In two he seems to say sexually suggestive things to nuns. He sometimes bursts out laughing as his final response to monk’s questions. His koan collection is by far one of the most entertaining to read.
A monk asked, “What is the Buddha’s true experience of reality?” The master said, “Is there anything else you don’t like?”
A monk asked, “What is Joshu’s master?” The master shouted, “You hooped barrel!” The monk answered, “Yes?” The master said, “Well done, hooped barrel.”
A monk asked, “What is an imbecile?” The master said, “I’m not as good as you.” The monk said, “I’m not trying to be anything.” The master said, “Why are you being an imbecile?”
A monk asked, “How can you not lead the multitudes of the world astray?” The master stuck out his foot. The monk took off one of the master’s sandals. The master brought back his foot. The monk could say nothing more.
A monk asked, “What is that which is spiritual?” The master said, “A puddle of piss in the Pure Land.” The monk said, “I ask you to reveal it to me.” The master said, “Don’t tempt me.”
A monk asked, “‘The Great Way has no root’, how can it be expressed?” The master said, “You just expressed it.” The monk said, “What about ‘no root’?” The master said, “There is no root. Where is it that you are being bound up?”
A monk asked, “The solitary moon is in the sky. From where does its light emanate?” The master said, “From where does the moon emanate?”
The master said, “I can make one blade of grass a sixteen foot golden Buddha, and I can make a sixteen foot gold Buddha into one blade of grass. Buddha is compulsive passions. Compulsive passions are Buddha.” A monk asked, “For the sake of whom does Buddha become compulsive passions?” The master said, “For the sake of all people Buddha becomes compulsive passions.” The monk asked, “How can they be escaped?” The master said, “What’s the use of escaping?”
A monk asked, “What about it when the three-pronged sword has not yet fallen?” The master said, “Densely packed together.” The monk asked, “What about after it has fallen?” The master said, “Wide open spaces.”
A monk asked, “What is the fact that I accept responsibility for?” The master said, “To the ends of time you’ll never single it out.”
A monk asked, “I have just come here and know nothing. What are my duties?” The master said, “What is your name?” The monk said, “Hui-han.” The master said, “A fine ‘knowing nothing’ that is.”
A monk asked, “It’s not yet clear to me, who is the patriarch of this land?” The master said, “Bodhidharma has come, so here we are all patriarchs.” The monk said, “What number generation are you?” (What position in the Zen lineage?) The master said, “I do not fall into any position.” The monk said, “Where are you?” The master said, “Inside your ears.”
Doctor Ts’ui asked, “Does an accomplished person go to hell or not?” The master said, “I entered at the head of the line.” The doctor asked, “You are an accomplished person. Why do you go to hell?” The master said, “If I had not gone, how could I have met you?”
A monk asked, “The second patriarch cut off his arm, what sort of act is that?” The master said, “He was throwing his whole self into it.”
A monk asked, “What is the perfect question?” The master said, “Wrong!”
A monk asked, “What are honest words?” The master said, “Your mother is ugly.”
A monk asked, “Two mirrors are facing each other. Which is the clearest?” The master said, “Your eyelids hang over Mount Sumaru.”
A monk said, “I don’t have a special question. Please don’t give a special reply.” The master said, “How extraordinary.”
A monk asked, “What is the unending depth of the deep?” The master said, “Your questioning me is the unending depth of the deep.”
Hoju asked Koteiko, “Aren’t you Koteiko?” Koteiko said, “You’re too kind.” Hoju asked, “Can you nail up the sky or not?” Koteiko said, “Please try to nail up the sky.” Hoju slapped him and said, “After this some jabbering scholar will explain this for you.” Koteiko told the master about this. The master said, “Why did you make him hit you?”
The master and an official were walking the the garden and saw a rabbit run away. The official said, “You are a great and accomplished person. Why did the rabbit run away?” The master said, “Because I like to kill.”
The master found the two sages Kanzan and Jittoju on Mount T’ien-tai. The master 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 said, “Shoo! Shoo!” The sages gnashed their teeth and glared at each other. When asked about this later, the master laughed heartily.
The master came to Po-chang’s monastery. Po-chang asked, “Where have you come from?” The master said, “From Nansen.” Po-chang asked, “What has Nansen been saying to instruct people?” The master said, “One time he said, ‘One with no attainment should be strict and solemn.” Po-chang scoffed at this, and the master looked startled. Po-chang said, “That’s a fine ‘strict and solemn.” The master did a little dance and left.
Tales from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
This book, compiled by Paul Reps, was one of the first I encountered in grade school. After reading some of these stories, I knew that there was something extraordinary in Zen. He has collected some of the most striking stories from over 700 years of the tradition.
An old woman in China had supported a monk in a hut in her yard for over twenty years. She decided to test his progress. She told a young girl to embrace and caress him. When she did, the monk replied, “An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter. Nowhere is there any warmth.” When she heard this, the woman was outraged that, while he had done nothing passionate, he had done nothing compassionate towards the girl either, and she promptly burned down the hut.
Notice that an old woman trumps a monk in this story, and that if there is no warmth anywhere then the monk must not mind if his hut is on fire.
Two monks were traveling in the rain down a muddy town road. Around a bend, they found a beautiful girl in a kimono unable to cross. One offered his help, picked her up and carried her over the mud. After the monks had reached an inn later, the second turned to him and scolded him for dangerously becoming involved with the girl, and the first replied, “I left the girl back there. Why are you still carrying her with you?”
Mokusen was approached by a villager who was upset with the stinginess of his wife. Mokusen visited her, clenched his hand in a fist and asked her, “What if my hand were always like that?” She replied that it would be deformed. Then he stretched out his open hand and asked the same question again, and she replied again that it would be deformed. Mokusen nodded and left.
One night Shichiri was meditating when a thief broke in and demanded money. Shichiri replied that the money was in the drawer and he was not to be disturbed. As the thief was taking the money, Shichiri asked that some be left, as he had taxes to pay. As the thief went to leave, Shichiri added that he should be thanked for the gift. Later, after the thief was caught, Shichiri told the officials, “This man is no thief. I gave him the money and he thanked me.” After getting out of prison, the thief became Shichiri’s student.
A samurai came to Hakuin and asked whether there was in fact a heaven or a hell. Hakuin replied that the man was as ugly as a beggar, and when the soldier raised his sword to kill Hakuin, Hakuin said, “Here open the gates of hell.” The samurai understood, and put his sword away. Hakuin said, “Here open the gates of paradise.”
Hogen was visited by traveling monks who were arguing about subjectivity and objectivity. He asked them about a large stone in the yard, and whether it was inside or outside the mind. One said that from a Buddhist viewpoint the stone was inside the mind. Hogen replied that his head must be very heavy to carry around a stone like that around in his mind.
Sengai was asked to write calligraphy for the prosperity of a rich man’s family. On a large sheet of paper, he wrote, “Father dies, son dies, grandson dies.” The rich man became angry, but Sengai explained that if each generation passes away in the proper order, it would be the happiest course for the entire family.
Basho, Master of Haiku
Basho (1644 – 1694 CE) was not a Zen monk, but he did practice Zen meditation and Zen influenced his haiku poetry. He is revered as the greatest haiku master, and many of his poems reflect the natural simplicity of the Japanese Zen tradition. His most famous poem, the first below, reflects this well, as well as the others that follow.
The old pond; A frog jumps in; The splash of the water
In the morning dew; Dirtied, cool; A muddy melon
A day when Mount Fuji; Is obscured by rain; How interesting
The glory of the dawn; This too cannot be; my friend
Let my name; Be traveler; First rains
You are the butterfly; And I the dreaming heart; Of Zhuangzi