The Master said, “Bukko Zenji’s advice to his disciple Bukkoku goes: ‘I doubt that many students in Japan will attain satori in their lifetimes. Some students in this country tend to admire intellectual understanding instead of trying to attain satori. It is a pity that students with great capacity waste their whole lives reading widely in the native and foreign classics, cultivating the art of composition, and in that way leaving no time for coming to see clearly into their Original Nature. There are students of another kind who do not have this wide knowledge and culture, but think it is best to sit in zazen absentmindedly, never making any real effort to seek the Way. People like this will never reach satori, either, however long they remain in the world.’
“When my teacher, Bukkoku, told me this, I said, ‘Apart from those who are born with the capacity for immediately perceiving the truth, which of the two you have described is superior?’ My teacher answered, ‘Even students with little ability can attain satori in this life. If they continue diligently in their zazen until the last day of the last year of their lives, a single word will be enough for them to attain satori a thousand times over. On the other hand, those who rely on their learning will not only waste their lives in this world, but in their next lives too they will fall into a world that they would rather avoid.’”
A monk said to the Master, “Those who use their scholarship to seem superior to others are beyond consideration. But why do you criticize those Zen students who have studied the Zen classics and so give off the light of wisdom?”
The Master answered, “Second-rate and third-rate students cannot go back to their Original Home. So out of pity for them the Patriarchs built temporary inns for them, which are like the classics you mention. In a sense these inns are good to have. Everyone needs sermons on the sutras at the sutra inns, sermons on the precepts at the precept inns, commentary on the records of Zen at the commentary inns. So there is no reason to rule out Zen preaching entirely.
“But a priest once said, ‘Bodhidharma came to China from India. And without relying on words and letters he pointed straight to the mind and brought students to realize satori!’ And he went on, ‘If looking into the true self is merely a matter of words, the whole of Buddhist scripture is nothing but words. Then what is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming to China?’ Huang-po says, ‘If any of you students wishes to be a Buddha, there is no need at all to make a study of any Dharma whatsoever. Just learn non-inquiry and non-attachment. There is no mind that is born unless you seek for something. There is no mind that dies unless you are attached to something. To be without birth or death is Buddhahood. The eighty-four thousand gates to the Dharma are there only to attract the students’ attention.’ This is only a teaching of ours, who are followers of Bodhidharma. All the teachings of the Great Vehicle follow the same path.
“The Lotus Sutra says, ‘Once at the Void-King’s palace a craving for enlightenment awoke in me and in Ananda at the same time. He set about acquiring wide learning, whereas I devoted all my energies to practice. That is why I have attained enlightenment.’ The Surangama Sutra says, ‘When he saw the Buddha, Ananda cried out in grief, lamenting the fact that he could acquire no Dharma power because he had devoted himself from the beginning to seeking knowledge only.’
“The Sutra on Perfect Enlightenment says, ‘Whatever they may desire, students with no enlightenment who do not practice have no chance of attaining satori. They devote themselves to acquiring more knowledge, and in so doing simply make it harder than ever for themselves to see their true natures.’ No one, even though he were to emit the light of wisdom as a result of reading many books, could compare his leaning with Ananda’s. It is much better to find the Buddha’s way to enlightenment than to rely on scholarship. I am reluctant to speak of the sayings of the Patriarchs and to lecture on the sutras. Because what I really want is to make my students understand that the core of the teachings of the Buddha and the Patriarchs is never found in words and letters.”
The monk inquired further: “Zen masters welcome students of the first kind, and guide them with words and with direct presentations of the mind, and they think most highly of those who have mastered both. So it is only natural that some gifted students try to master mind and words at the same time. Do you say they are wrong?”
The Master answered, “One of our forerunners once said, ‘Students who have had no glimpse of enlightenment would do better to study mind first rather than words. Those who have attained some enlightenment should study words first and then mind. You have called mind and words into question, but you know nothing of their real workings.’ Another master said, ‘Words polish mind and mind polishes words. It’s best when you can use them freely, just as you please.’ Do you really understand what he is saying? You must realize that the original state of satori has nothing to do with either of them, but that mind and words are separated simply as a means for teaching novices. Beginning students try to understand their teachers’ words by analyzing them, and as a result they block their own way and lose the pointer that was guiding them toward satori. That is why the master said, ‘Students who have had no glimpse of enlightenment would do better to study mind first rather than words.’
“On the other hand, someone who has attained enlightenment but not mastered words will not be recognized as a master and will not be able to teach and guide students. So one may have a high regard for a perfect command of both mind and words without directing beginners to study mind and words at the same time.”
Muso Soseki (1275-1351)
Excerpted from Sun at Midnight – Poems and Sermons of Muso Soseki translated by W.S. Merwin and Soiku Shigematsu
Depending on how long one has practiced, at some point we all realize the dead end of intellectual understanding. That doesn’t mean there is no value in “words and letters.” What is criticized above is the substitution of meditation time with what can become the distraction of reading one more teacher’s instructions, one more sutra, and how about that new school of Zen? We find endless ways to distract ourselves everyday. Endless ways to tell ourselves daily life has become meditation, so no need to sit anymore….We also finds endless ways to fool ourselves and others.
Huang po’s comment is most succinct and clear: ‘If any of you students wishes to be a Buddha, there is no need at all to make a study of any Dharma whatsoever. Just learn non-inquiry and non-attachment. There is no mind that is born unless you seek for something. There is no mind that dies unless you are attached to something. To be without birth or death is Buddhahood. The eighty-four thousand gates to the Dharma are there only to attract the students’ attention.’
It’s easy to see how all these teachings are methods to get our attention; however, there is the very real work of putting some of it into practice. Non-attachment does not just drop out of the sky on you…. If we remember all the poems, stories, and teachings are the fingers pointing to the moon, we can continue to pursue practice with “great effort, no goal.”
And to continue the illusion Muso mentioned above, these days we have the Inn of Daily Zen to provide a little inspiration from time to time.
May your Practice be Pure!