What was it that Buddha wished to teach? Was it sagacity? Was it brilliant academic understanding? Was his aim to encourage the reading of the sutras, or asceticism or austerities? In reality it was none of these. He simply wished to show all living beings how to set in right order the body and mind. The method of doing this is given in the classic on meditation called Zazen-gi:
“Think the unthinkable. How to think the unthinkable? Be without thoughts; this is the secret of meditation.”
Being without thoughts is the object of Zen meditation; the control of body and mind is only a method of reaching it. When the body and mind are controlled, from the ensuing absence of thoughts are born spontaneously brilliant understanding, perfect Buddha-wisdom, reading of the sutras and devotion, asceticism, and austerities. There are some who have too hastily assumed that holy reading, devotion, or austerities have a value in themselves, but this is not the traditional Zen as handed down through the great master Dogen.
What is meant by absence of thoughts? The living Samadhi of all the Buddhas is none other than being in a state absent of thoughts. Taking the words literally, one might think it meant to be like a tree or a stone, but it is not that at all. It cannot be understood by our ordinary consciousness, but neither shall we get it by unconsciousness. We can only grasp it by experiencing it in ourselves.
Beginners, when they first hear that the secret of Zen is to be without thoughts, but that it is not attained by consciousness or unconsciousness, cannot understand at all what it can be, and are bewildered. Now instead of wondering how to get it, or trying to understand it or to analyze it, the essential thing is to take a resolute plunge into death, to give up one’s body and life itself. It means to cut off all our discriminating fancies at the root and source. If we go on cutting them off at the root, then of itself the freedom from thought will come, which means that our original realization appears, and this is called satori. An ancient said:
“In Zen the important thing is to stop the course of the mind.”
It means to stop the working of our empirical consciousness, the mass of thoughts, ideas, and perceptions. Dogen says:
“Cut off thought by the power of meditation. By this alone nearly everyone can attain the Way.”
Attaining the Way is realizing the Buddha heart which is our own true nature. The radiance of the Buddha heart breaks forth from ourselves; the compassion of the Buddha flows out of the Buddha heart within us. We come to know that the majesty of Buddha is the majesty of our self also.
The doctrine of karma is one aspect of Buddhism. In this doctrine, the whole phenomenal universe as perceived by us is understood to be an effect, corresponding to the previous thoughts, speech, and actions of the individual and of all living beings, which are the cause. In fact the whole phenomenal universe is experienced according to our karma. The three forms of karma, namely action of body, speech, and thought, can all be embraced under the heading of actions of the mind or heart. Whether this heart is the Buddha heart or not is the cause which determines good or evil for us. And if we only stress our ego and do not cut off the thoughts, the Buddha heart does not manifest.
The real difficulty of Zen meditation is how to stop the course of the mind, how to cut off thought. Some twenty five hundred years ago at Kushinara in India, the World honored One, Shakyamuni Buddha, was about to die. In the final teachings to his disciples, the last phrase of the instructions about mind and senses is:
“You must subjugate the mind.”
This does not mean the Buddha mind or Buddha heart, but it means the egoistic heart of the ordinary person who employs the mind actively all the time. Was there ever any chameleon comparable to the human heart? Just now it was happy and laughing, but now all at once it is sad, then in a rage about something or other; or it wants to eat, or to sleep, to praise or to slander. This is why in the Vijnanavada school of Buddhism all changes are called transformations of consciousness.
As to whether the heart in itself is good or bad, some say good and some say bad, and there was also a view among the ancients that it is neither. However it may be, what is clear is that our minds from morning to evening in their ceaseless activity undergo thousands and millions of changes and transformations, good and bad.
Reason and morality tell us to take every possible care that we do not slip into a wrong path, but instead strive to keep the carriage of our life on the right road. An old poet sings:
“When you feel it pulling, do not loose the reins of the colt of the heart, which would enter distracting paths,” and again: “In the cooking pot of the world, cook well and not badly; the human heart is the free moving ladle.”
According to how the free ladle is lifted and lowered, the things are cooked well of badly. The human heart is likewise fundamentally free. They say that it is important all the time to give attention to the right path, but Zen does not speak of morality in quite this way. It is just a question of the Buddha heart, which prompts us to take a step beyond, to end the coursing of the mind, to cut off the thought. Once and for all, we have to cut off the working of the mind, which is the inner ego from which evil emerges.
Buddhism teaches that the human heart has two aspects: the pure heart and the impure heart. But the heart in itself is not two; it is only classified in these two ways according to its workings. The pure heart is the pure heart of our own nature, our natural heart which is not a whit different from the Buddha heart. Opposed to this is the impure heart which gives us no peace from morning to night, the egoistic heart of illusions, the passion-ridden heart. Because the selfish, passionate heart is not natural, we are always afflicted with sufferings; endlessly this heart, absolutely reckless, leads people astray.
In Soto Zen, the practice is just realizing; we meditate as earnestly as the Buddha himself did, and it is not a question of waiting for satori. We understand that the value of this practice of earnest sitting in meditation is how the Buddha light is brought out into our world. If it is done, then naturally through the Buddha heart our human nature is elevated. There is no distinction here of sharp or dull or clever or stupid. It is a fact that anyone who devotes themselves wholeheartedly to spiritual meditation without wavering reaches the supreme state.
Takashina Rosen (1876-1968)
Excerpted from A First Zen Reader Compiled and translated by Trevor Leggett 1960
Sometimes the more we talk about practice, the more confusing it becomes. If we’re not careful, conversation stirs up the waters of the mind rather than helping us to settle. The spiritual journey is taken because it is our nature to find out why we are here, who we are in this universe, and ultimately realization is attained.
While there are many stories about seeking for that which we had all the time, still in the beginning there is the need for the quest. All over the world there are mythic tales of adventurous people seeking for their own Holy Grail. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we can easily relate to the distraction of that field of poppies; we, also, too easily can fall asleep and forget the deeper quests of life.
Meditation is just returning to our natural state; it’s just what we do to Return to a sense of being that is so easily overshadowed by the acquisitiveness in the outer world of events. There is really nothing special to get there; it’s just a help to return to our true nature, “pure and infinite.”
May this New Year ahead bring you closer to your deepest aspirations, and we will bring Daily Zen to keep you company along the Way.
Elana, Scribe for Daily Zen