I wouldn’t say that those in recent times who study the Way do not try hard, but often they just memorize Zen stories and try to pass judgment on the ancient and modern Zen masters, picking and choosing among words and phrases, creating complicated rationalizations and learning stale slogans. When will they ever be done with this? If you study Zen like this, all you will get is a collection of worn-out antiques and curios.
When you “seek the source and investigate the fundamental” in this fashion, after all you are just climbing up the pole of your own intellect and imagination. If you don’t encounter an adept, if you don’t have indomitable will yourself, if you have never stepped back into yourself and worked on your spirit; if you have not cast off all your former and subsequent knowledge and views of surpassing wonder, if you have not directly gotten free of all this and comprehended the causal conditions of the fundamental great matter, then that is why you are still only halfway there and are falling behind and cannot distinguish or understand clearly. If you just go on like this, then even if you struggle diligently all your life, you still won’t see the fundamental source even in a dream.
This is why the man of old said, “Enlightenment is apart from verbal explanations—there has never been any attainer.”
Deshan said, “Our school has no verbal expressions and not a single thing or teaching to give to people.”
Zhaozhou said: “I don’t like to hear the word buddha.”
Look at how, in verbally disavowing verbal explanations, they had already scattered dirt and messed people up. If you go on looking for mysteries and marvels in the Zen masters’ blows and shouts and facial gestures and glaring looks and physical movements, you will fall even further into the wild foxes’ den.
All that is important in this school is that enlightenment be clear and thorough, like the silver mountain and the iron wall, towering up solitary and steep, many miles high. Since this realization is as sudden as sparks and lightning, whether or not you try to figure it out, you immediately fall into a pit. That is why since time immemorial the adepts have guarded this one revelation, and all arrived together at the same realization.
Here, there is nowhere for you to take hold. Once you can clear up your mind, and you are able to abandon all entanglements, and you are cultivating practice relying on an enlightened spiritual friend, it would be really too bad if you weren’t patient enough to get to the level where the countless difficulties cannot get near you, and to lay down your body and your mind there and investigate till you penetrate through all the way.
Over thousands of lifetimes and hundreds of eons up until now, has there ever been any discontinuity in the fundamental reality or not? Since there has been no discontinuity, what birth and death and going and coming is there for you to be in doubt about? Obviously these things belong to the province of causal conditions and have absolutely no connection to the fundamental matter.
My teacher Wuzu often said: “I have been here for five decades, and I have seen thousands and thousands of Zen followers come up to the corner of my meditation seat. They were all just seeking to become buddhas and to expound Buddhism. I have never seen a single genuine wearer of the patched robe.”
How true this is! As we observe the present time, even those who expound Buddhism are hard to find—much less any genuine people. The age is in decline and the sages are further and further distant. In the whole great land of China, the lineage of Buddha is dying out right before our eyes. We may find one person or half a person who is putting the Dharma into practice, but we would not dare to expect them to be like the great exemplars of enlightenment, the “dragons and elephants” of yore.
Nevertheless, if you simply know the procedures and aims of practical application of the Dharma and carry on correctly from beginning to end, you are already producing a lotus from within the fire.
You must put aside all the conditioning that entangles you. Then you will be able to perceive the inner content of the great enlightenment that has come down since ancient times. Be at rest wherever you are, and carry on the secret, closely continuous, intimate-level practice. The devas will have no road to strew flowers on, and demons and outsiders will not be able to find your tracks. This is what it means to truly leave home and thoroughly understand oneself.
If, after you have reached this level, circumstances arise as the result of merit that lead you to come forth and extend a hand to communicate enlightenment to others, this would not be appropriate. As Buddha said, “Just acquiesce in the truth; you surely won’t be deceived.”
But even for me to speak this way is another case of a man from bandit-land seeing off a thief.
Excerpted from Zen Letters – Teachings of Yuanwu-Translated by J. C. Cleary and Thomas Cleary
This collection of letters written to teachers, students, and lay people reveals a side of Yuanwu that is personable and easily understood. He is better known as the author of the famous Blue Cliff Record which offers challenges to students at all levels of practice. His admonishments about practice apply just as easily to us today as they did hundreds of years ago. One of the beauties of these readings is to see the timeless quality of seeking the Way. Allowing for misunderstandings due to translations, there is always this experience of being one with students of all times. The quest/non quest is universal in each heart.
Here, there is nowhere for you to take hold.
Once you can clear up your mind,
and you are able to abandon all entanglements,
and you are cultivating practice…,
it would be really too bad
if you weren’t patient enough to get
to the level where the countless difficulties
cannot get near you,
and to lay down your body and your mind there
and investigate till you penetrate through all the way.
Consider what it takes in questioning ourselves to “put aside all conditioning” as part of one’s practice. The effort and focus of intention almost sounds counter to the act of sitting meditation. In truth there are many doorways into training, and according to our vasanas, we are drawn in directions that speak most easily to us. What will we do to keep sharp? When one has relied on any method, it can easily become the background of one’s life. Then what?
Here, there is nowhere for you to take hold.
May our minds be clear!