On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

Aug 23 2014

The Mirror of Zen Part 2

Those who studied Buddhism in the old days would not speak a word if it had not been the Buddha's word, nor did an action if it had not been the Buddha's action  They treasured the sacred teachings transmitted by the great sutras with their whole heart.

Those who study Buddhism these days, however, recite glibly and seem to overvalue the writings of worldly scholars and Chinese classics, and request and cherish the poems of petty court officials.  Furthermore, they have those writings written down on colorful paper and decorated with gorgeous silk. They can never have enough of this sort of literature, and consider them their utmost treasures.  The treasures of students of Buddhism in the past and the treasures of students of Buddhism today are so different!

Although I am truly lacking in ability, I have cherished the old writings, and consider the sacred writings from the great sutras to be my greatest treasures.  Still, these writings are too extensive, and the sea of sutras is so vast.  I was afraid that fellow practitioners in the future might have to take unnecessary pains to weed through so many branches in order to gather the fruits that would truly nourish them.

So, in order to save students of the Dharma from such needless effort and trouble, I have selected here in one book a few hundred words from the writings that are the most essential and inspiring of faith in practice.  The writings are spare, even deceptively simple, but their meanings are perfectly complete.  If you consider this book your guide and pursue its truths to the end in order to attain the mysterious dharma, you will see a living Buddha sprouting out of each and every phrase.  Therefore, you should contemplate this book by all means.

Yet study these words and phrases though you may, it would be far better to attain that single word that is beyond all writings.  It is a mysterious treasure outside all forms. I do not intend never to use it, but intend instead, from moment to moment, to wait for a special opportunity to manifest itself.

So Sahn  (1520-1604)

There is only one thing, from the very beginning, infinitely bright and mysterious by nature.

It was never born, and it never dies. It cannot be described or given a name.

The appearance of all Buddhas and Patriarch in this world can be likened to waves arising suddenly on a windless ocean.

Yet, dharma has many depths of meaning, and people have different capacities to receive it.  Therefore it is necessary to adopt different kinds of skillful means.

You may call it "mind," or "Buddha," or "sentient being."  Yet you should neither become attached to the names nor make distinctions or understanding.  The essence of things is just-like-this.  If even one thought appears, that is already a mistake.

The Zen meditation tradition descends from the three situations where the Buddha transmitted his insight wordlessly from mind to mind.  The Sutra tradition derives from the occasions of the Buddha's spoken teachings, delivered throughout his life.  Therefore it can be said that Zen is the Buddha's mind, while the sutras are Buddha's words.

If you become attached to words and speech, then even the Buddha's silently raising a flower or Mahakashyapa's wordless smile will be only another trace of the sutras.  However, when you attain the truth within your own mind, even all the base chatter or elegant speech of the mundane world become nothing less than this same "special transmission outside the sutras."

I would like to say just one thing:

Cutting off all thinking, forgetting all


While sitting here with nothing to do--

Yet spring comes, and grass grows 

all by itself.

The Sutra teaching transmits only the dharma of One Mind, while Zen meditation transmits only the dharma of seeing one's true nature.

In all of the sutras expounded by the Buddha, he first draws distinctions between various kinds of Dharmas, and then only later explains the principle of emptiness.  The Zen meditation tradition handed down from the Patriachs teaches, however, that when all traces of thinking are cut off, the principle of emptiness appears clearly, of itself, as the very origin of mind.

The Buddha spoke like a bow, while the Patriarchs spoke like its string.  He taught a no-hindrance Dharma that returns to the One Taste, sometimes called "substance."  When even the traces of this "one taste" disappear, the one mind taught by the Patriarchs appears clearly.    For this reason, it is said that the hwa-du (koan) of "the pine tree in the garden" cannot be found even in the sutras of the Dragon Palace under the sea.

Therefore students should understand the true teachings of the Buddha and distinguish clearly between the following two teachings: the fundamental ground of mind never changes while at the same time the form of your mind conforms to causes and conditions.  Students of the buddha-dharma should perceive how the two gates of sudden enlightenment and gradual practice are both the beginning and the end of their practice.  Then they must put aside their sutras and meditate with total one-pointedness—only this will clearly reveal their mind. They will surely gain by this!  Such is the way that you jump out of the burning house and save your life.

So Sahn  (1520-1604)

Excerpted from The Mirror of Zen: The Classic Guide to Buddhist Practice by Zen Master So Sahn


This is a unique gift as you can see in the introduction above.  A Zen master from hundreds of years ago has essentialized what he sees as the heart of the sutras and Zen for us "practitioners in the future."  How many times have some of us attempted to read one of the sutras and just felt overwhelmed by the language, the images, the searching for the essence of the teaching?  You might have thought, "if I could just have someone bring out the main points here..."  And here someone has done just that.

What you see above is the core of the text without the commentary and notes.  Why this "nothing extra" approach?  To allow us to bring our own response to the teachings rather than adding more commentary and notes to obscure things.  Sometimes just that bare encounter is best.  Let what comes up from us arise without any extra help from outside.  

He has brought us the important corners; it is up to us to bring forth the last.

"Only one who bursts with

enthusiasm do I instruct;

only one who bubbles with

excitement do I enlighten.

If I hold up one corner

and you do not come back

to me with the other three,

I do not continue the lesson."


Gazing at mountains,