On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

April 14, 2015

Zen Teachings of Huang Po

Huang-Po (d 850)

Our original Buddha-Nature is, in highest truth, devoid of any atom of objectivity. It is void, omnipresent, silent, pure; it is glorious and mysterious peaceful joy — and that is all. Enter deeply into it by awakening to it yourself. That which is before you is it, in all its fullness, utterly complete. There is naught beside.

Even if you go through all the stages of a Bodhisattva’s progress toward Buddhahood, one by one; when at last, in a single flash, you attain to full realization, you will only be realizing the Buddha-Nature which has been with you all the time; and by all the foregoing stages you will have added to it nothing at all.

You will come to look upon all those eons of work and achievement as no better than unreal actions performed in a dream. That is why the Tathagata said, “I truly attained nothing from complete, unexcelled Enlightenment. Had there been anything attained, Dipamkara Buddha would not have made the prophecy concerning me.” He also said, “This Dharma is absolutely without distinctions, neither high nor low, and its name is Bodhi.”

It is pure Mind, which is the source of everything and which, whether appearing as sentient beings or as Buddhas, as the rivers and mountains of the world which has form, as that which is formless, or as penetrating the whole universe absolutely without distinctions, there being no such entities as selfness and otherness.

This pure Mind, the source of everything, shines forever and on all with the brilliance of its own perfection. But the people of the world do not awaken to it, regarding only that which sees, hears, feels and knows as mind. Blinded by their own sight, hearing, feeling and knowing, they do not perceive the spiritual brilliance of the source-substance. If they would only eliminate all conceptual thought in a flash, that source-substance would manifest itself like the sun ascending through the void and illuminating the whole universe without hindrance or bounds.

Therefore, if you students of the Way seek to progress through seeing, hearing, feeling and knowing, when you are deprived of your perceptions, your way to Mind will be cut off and you will find nowhere to enter. Only realize that, though real Mind is expressed in these perceptions it neither forms part of them nor is separate from them.

You should not start reasoning from these perceptions, nor allow them to give rise to conceptual thought; yet, nor should you seek the One Mind apart from them or abandon them in your pursuit of the Dharma. Do not keep them nor abandon them nor dwell in them nor cleave to them. Above, below and around you, all is spontaneously existing, for there is nowhere which is outside the Buddha-Mind.

When people of the world hear it said that the Buddhas transmit the Doctrine of the Mind, they suppose that there is something to be attained or realized apart from Mind, and thereupon they use Mind to seek the Dharma, not knowing that Mind and the object of their search are one. Mind cannot be used to seek something apart from Mind; for then, after the passing of millions of eons, the day of success will still not have dawned. Such a method is not to be compared with suddenly eliminating conceptual thought, which is the fundamental Dharma.

Suppose a warrior, forgetting that he was already wearing his pearl on his forehead, were to seek for it elsewhere, he could travel the whole world without finding it. But if someone who knew what was wrong were to point it out to him, the warrior would immediately realize that the pearl had been there all the time. So, if you students of the Way are mistaken about your own real Mind, not recognizing that it is the Buddha, you will consequently look for him everywhere, indulging in various achievements and practices and expecting to attain realization by such graduated practices.

But even after eons of diligent searching, you will not be able to attain to the Way. These methods cannot be compared to the sudden elimination of conceptual thought, in the certain knowledge that there is nothing at all which has absolute existence, nothing on which to lay hold, nothing on which to rely, nothing in which to abide, nothing subjective or objective.

It is by preventing the rise of conceptual thought that you will realize Bodhi; and, when you do, you will just be realizing the Buddha who has always existed in your own Mind! Eons of striving will prove to be so much wasted effort; just as, when the warrior found his pearl, he merely discovered what had been hanging on this forehead all the time; and just as his finding of it had nothing to do with his efforts to discover it elsewhere.

Therefore the Buddha said, “I truly attained nothing from complete, unexcelled Enlightenment.” It was for fear that people would not believe this that he drew upon what is seen with the five sorts of vision and spoken with the five kinds of speech. So this quotation is by no means empty talk, but expresses the highest truth.


Questions & Answers

Q:   What is the Way and how must it be followed?
A:   What sort of thing do you suppose the Way to be, that you should wish to follow it?

Q:   What instructions have the Masters everywhere given for dhyana practice and the study of Dharma?
A:  Words used to attract the dull of wit are not to be relied on.

Q:  If those teachings were meant for the dull-witted, I have yet to hear what Dharma has been taught to those of really high capacity.
A:  If they are really people of high capacity, where could they find people to follow? If they seek from within themselves, they will find nothing tangible; how much less can they find a Dharma worthy of their attention elsewhere! Do not look to what is called the Dharma by teachers, for what sort of Dharma could that be?

Q:  If that is so, should we not seek for anything at all?
A:  By conceding this, you would save yourself a lot of mental effort.

Q:  But in this way everything would be eliminated. There cannot just be nothing.
A:  Who called it nothing? Who was this fellow? But you wanted to seek for something.

Q:  Since there is no need to seek, why do you also say that not everything is eliminated?
A:  Not to seek is to rest tranquil. Who told you to eliminate everything? Look at the void in front of your eyes. How can you produce it or eliminate it?

Q:  If I could reach this Dharma, would it be like the void?
A:  Morning and night I have explained to you that the Void is both One and Manifold. I said this as a temporary expedient, but you are building up concepts from it.

Q:  Do you mean that we should not form concepts as human beings normally do?
A:  I have not prevented you; but concepts are related to the senses; and, when feeling takes place, wisdom is shut out.

Q:  Then should we avoid any feeling in relation to the Dharma?
A:  Where no feeling arises, who can say that you are right?

Q:  Why do you speak as though I was mistaken in all the questions I have asked Your Reverence?
A:  You are a person who doesn’t understand what is said to him. What is all this about being mistaken?

Q:  Up to now, you have refuted everything which has been said. You have done nothing to point out the true Dharma to us.
A:  In the true Dharma there is no confusion, but you produce confusion by such questions. What sort of ‘true Dharma’ can you go seeking for?

Q:  Since the confusion arises from my questions, what will Your Reverence’s answer be?
A:  Observe things as they are and don’t pay attention to other people. There are some people just like mad dogs barking at everything that moves, even barking when the wind stirs among the grass and leaves.

Huang-Po (died 850)

Excerpted from The Zen Teaching of Huang Po On the Transmission of Mind – trans by John Blofeld 1959



It takes a while to begin to feel comfortable with “nothing to hang onto” as some refer to the subtleties of practice. Practice is bursting with paradox, and Zen masters seem to have mastered the art of communicating the Way in a manner that often does serve to stop the mind.

They are ever ready to help us dislodge sticky concepts we cling to or extremes of practice that some get attached to. There are many distractions in life and in practice; the job of the teacher is to help pull us into the present and hold up that Mind Mirror.

The two gathas in The Platform Sutra written on the wall of the monastery revealed the minds of the head monk who assumed he would receive the robe and bowl to become the Sixth patriarch, and the lowly monk Hui-neng who pedaled a millstone for eight months in the kitchen.

The body is a bodhi tree
the mind is like a standing mirror
always try to keep it clean
don’t let it gather any dust.  — Shen-hsiu

Bodhi doesn’t have any trees
this mirror doesn’t have a stand
our buddha nature if forever pure
where do you get this dust?  — Hui-neng

The mind is the bodhi tree
the body is the mirror’s stand
the mirror itself is so clean
dust has no place to land.  — Hui-neng’s second poem

Fortunately there is a place for both styles of practice; there are teachings geared to wherever the student is. No need to judge either one, just pick up and keep moving along the Way.

Still dusting the mirror,
 — Elana

Related Journals

Recent Journals

Journal Archives