On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

April 17, 2024

West Evening Mountain Talk – Part 6

Muso Soseki (1275-1351)

A monk questioned: “Would it be best to spend one’s time in complete silence, without reading anything?”

The Master answered, “One master said, ‘The truth can be attained neither by words nor by silence.’ The Patriarchs and the descendants of Bodhidharma are not supposed to rely on words and letters. Is that supposed to mean that silence is to be preferred and words are to be avoided? On the contrary, the one thing they want is for students to see that the real truth lies neither in words nor in silence.

“Once this fact is clear to you, all the teachings of the Buddha and the Patriarchs are matters within your own house. So if you want to understand their teachings, please let go of whatever knowledge and wisdom you may have acquired up until now and, forgetting about yourself entirely, devote yourself completely to the one koan.

“Those students who are naturally gifted will not only go beyond koan study but will also escape falling into mere silence. They always go straight to the essential. Those are the ones that are unquestionably my disciples.

“Everything I have said up until now is for their sake. I am unwilling to teach those scatterbrained students who have no wish for the truth but only a restless urge to collect knowledge. But some who are aware of the unremitting law of cause and effect, and live a modest life, or who try to learn something from Zen monastery life, and practice to make something of their lives, may be able to accomplish a kind of Zen in their own way. I cannot turn aside from such people either.

“One of Pu-tai’s ‘Ten No-Uses’ goes, ‘If both practice and learning were to be abandoned, even priesthood would be meaningless.’ This may reflect on what I have been saying.

“Lately some priests have turned their whole study to scriptures other than Buddhist. But there they really learn neither mind nor words. Do they in fact deserve to be called Zen priests? Such people have been dealt with already in a number of the sutras. Since they have become disciples of the Buddha, why do they pay no attention to his teachings?”

The monk questioned further: “There are people who have learned Zen talk and flatter themselves that they have fully understood what is meant by ‘Bodhidharma’s reason for coming to China.’ What makes you assume that they have not attained enlightenment?”

The Master answered: “Once a master said, ‘Bodhidharma came to China from the West, but he never preached a word of the Dharma to anyone. All he did was to show that everyone without exception is endowed with the Dharma and is already accomplished and perfect and that there is not the slightest gap between each individual and the Buddha and the Patriarchs.

“Since everyone is no different from the Buddha and the Patriarchs, it is pointless to argue about superiority and inferiority between you and me. If someone is so conceited as to insist that he is enlightened, but others are not, it is quite obvious that this person is not enlightened and has not understood the meaning of ‘Bodhidharma’s reason for coming to China from India.’

“Those who have grasped the mind of Bodhidharma know perfectly well that the sutra-studying school’s theories of the relative and absolute, phenomena and noumena, and Zen’s richi and kikan are after all nothing but fingers pointing to the moon, or tiles for knocking at the gate. Students get together nowadays to measure each other’s fingers or to guess the dimensions of each other’s piece of tile, and they manage to persuade themselves that they have attained satori.

“This is nothing but ‘lip-Zen.’ How could we call people like this descendants of Bodhidharma?”

“Ta-hui was a wandering monk in his youth, and he learned ‘lip-Zen.’ He flattered himself that he had attained complete satori, but he realized at last that that was not true. He visited Yuan-wu and finally had his lumps of illusions smashed to pieces. After that, he always spoke of his mistake as a way of warning his disciples.

“Today’s student, too, must keep this teaching in mind. The masters with true insight hold out their hands to offer guidance, sometimes seizing their disciples, sometimes turning them loose, sometimes snatching everything away from them, sometimes giving them everything. They do it all as quickly and with as little trace as a flint spark or a flash of lightning.

“This is the art of the great masters, the art of blindfolding one’s distracted eyes. Yung-chia says, ‘Sometimes I say yes and sometimes no; nobody knows which beforehand. Upside down or right side up; even Heaven cannot predict’

“Those who have not reached his level of satori but merely imitate the art of the masters deceive themselves and, what is worse, let loose an evil karma that spreads to many others. We must be very careful about this.”

Muso Soseki (1275-1351)

Excerpted from Sun at Midnight – Poems and Sermons, trans by W.S. Merton and Soiku Shigematsu 1989

Some of the Zen masters may sound harsh at times; their actions can seem confounding, but for some, it takes a big message to break through the attachment to self. This truly is one of the biggest hurdles we encounter in practice, so subtle as to actually fool us into thinking “Ah, now I really understand at last!”

Perhaps you have experienced “lip-Zen” yourself in your discussions about the Way with others. It is all too human to put years of effort into anything and not think you are getting it at last, even becoming a master at your craft in the world. Since we are always on the Way, the notion of mastering anything is an illusion. All too often people can set themselves up teaching others only to be deceiving themselves in the long run.

How do you rein yourself in when the heart/mind starts galloping away? The teachings and stories of Zen and Buddhism are like a raft to cross the shore of existence, but we have to get on the raft and off ourselves.

Back to the breath,

Elana, Scribe for Daily Zen

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