~ Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori Roshi ~
The Blue Cliff Record, Case 11
The great capacity of buddhas and ancestors is completely within his control; the lifeline of humans and gods is entirely subject to his direction. With a casual word or phrase he astounds the crowd and stirs the masses; with one device, one object, he smashes chains and knocks off fetters. Meeting transcendental potential, he brings up transcendental matters. But tell me, who has ever come on like this? Are there any who know where he is at? To test, I cite this: look!
Huangbo, instructing the community, said, “All of you people are gobblers of dregs; if you go on traveling around this way, where will you have Today? Do you know that there are no teachers of Ch’an in all of China?”
At that time a monk came forward and said, “Then what about those in various places who order followers and lead communities?”
Huangbo said, “I do not say that there is no Ch’an; it’s just that there are no teachers.”
The Capping Verse
His cold severe solitary mien does not take pride in itself;
Solemnly dwelling in the sea of the world, he distinguishes dragons and snakes.
Ta Chung the Son of Heaven has been lightly handled;
Three times he personally felt those claws and fangs at work.
Huangbo was one of the great masters of Zen during the Tang Dynasty in China, around 800 A.D. He was imposing and unusual, even among the unusual masters of that time, in great part because of his physical appearance. He was seven feet tall and had a callous that allegedly grew on his forehead as a result of bowing. Once a monastic went to see Huangbo and asked him, “You always say you don’t depend on the Buddha, you don’t depend on the Dharma, you don’t depend on the Sangha. Why do you continually bow?” In other words, if you don’t depend on these things, what are you paying respect to by bowing? Huangbo replied, “I don’t seek from the Buddha, I don’t seek from the Dharma, I don’t seek from the Sangha. I always just bow.” The monastic insisted, “But what’s the use of bowing?” Huangbo hit him. The monk said, “Too coarse,” and Huangbo said, “What place is this to talk of coarse and fine?” and hit him again.
There are a number of very colorful stories about Huangbo. One of them says that Huangbo was on a pilgrimage to Tiantai Mountain, one of the sacred mountains in China. Along the way, he met a very unusual monastic who had a kind of light in his eyes and he and Huangbo hit it off immediately. They talked and laughed together as if they had known each other for years. They decided to travel together, and after a while they came upon a swollen valley stream. Huangbo then leaned his staff up against a tree, took off his hat and sat down. The monastic tried to get him to cross the stream with him, and Huangbo said, “Please, cross over yourself.” So the stranger gathered up his robes and walked on top of the water across the stream. Looking back he called to Huangbo, “Come on, come across, come across.” And Huangbo replied, “You self-perfected fellow! If I’d known you would concoct miracles, I would have broken both your legs.” The monastic sighed and said, “You are a true vessel of the teaching of the Great Vehicle,” then he disappeared.
There are no miracles in Zen. Ultimately, what does walking on water have to do with trans- forming your life? There are a lot of spiritual magicians in the world, but we need to ask ourselves, what do these “extra-sensory” powers have to do with the question of life and death? What do they have to do with transforming the way we perceive ourselves and the universe? What do they have to do with today? That is, with being totally present in this very moment? That’s why the monastic recognized Huangbo’s spiritual caliber.
Huangbo was a successor of Master Baizhang and Baizhang was a successor of the great Master Mazu. When Huangbo first met Baizhang, the latter said, “Magnificent, imposing. Where have you come from?” This is a testing question. Baizhang was trying to find out the depth of clarity of this new monastic. Huangbo said, “Magnificent, imposing. I’ve come from the mountains.” Baizhang said, “What have you come for?” Huangbo said, “Not for anything else.” Baizhang accepted him as a student. The next day, Huangbo was getting ready to leave when Baizhang saw him and asked, “Where are you going?” Huangbo said, “I’m going to pay my respects to the great master Mazu.” Mazu was Baizhang’s teacher. Baizhang said, “He’s already passed on.” Huangbo replied, “What did he have to say when he was alive?” Baizhang told him the story of his own encounter with Mazu: When Mazu saw Baizhang approaching, he took the fly-whisk off the hook that was behind him and held it up. Baizhang said, “Do you identify with this action or detach from this action?” And in response to this, Mazu took it and hung it back up on the hook. Later on, Mazu said, “When you’re flapping your lips [about the dharma], how will you help people?” Baizhang took the fly-whisk down and held it up. Mazu said to him, “Do you identify with this action or detach from this action?” Baizhang took it and hooked it back up. Mazu gave a shout that left Baizhang deaf for a week.
Having told the story, Baizhang then turned to Huangbo and asked him, “After this, won’t you be a successor of the great Master Mazu?” Huangbo said, “No, today, because of the master’s recital, I’ve gotten to see Master Mazu’s great capacity and great function; but if I were to succeed to Master Mazu, in the future I would be bereft of descendants.” Baizhang said, “It is so. It is so. If your view equals your teacher’s, you have less than half your teacher’s virtue. It’s only when your wisdom goes beyond your teacher, that you’re worthy to pass on the transmission.” This is one of the tenets of Zen. If your view is equal to that of your teacher’s, you diminish the dharma by half. It’s only when your view has exceeded the teacher’s that the transmission is complete.
Photo by Svein Nordrum
In the pointer, Yuanwu says, “The great capacity of buddhas and ancestors is completely within his control; the lifeline of humans and gods is entirely subject to his direction.” This is a person who has mastered him or herself. When you master yourself, you master the universe, because self and universe are not two separate things. What does it mean to master the universe? What does it mean to be master of one’s self? Yuanwu says, “With a casual word or phrase he astounds the crowd and stirs the masses. With a single device or object he smashes chains and knocks off fet- ters.” We need to keep in mind, always, that those chains and fetters that restrict us, those barriers that block our way, don’t exist. They only exist in our mind. They exist because we’ve placed them there. The fact is, there are no chains, there are no fetters, there are no hindrances. Each one of us is vast and boundless, without edges.
In smashing the chains and knocking off the fetters, Huangbo is dealing with the ideas and positions that we’ve created in order to define our limits. Instructing his community one day, Huangbo mounted the rostrum and addressed his assembly, “All of you people are gobblers of dregs; if you go on traveling around this way, where will you have today? Do you know that there are no teachers of Chan in all of China?” The dregs are the words and ideas that describe reality, and the wine of that reality is our own direct experience.
We should be aware of the fact that Zen didn’t come to America from Japan or from China or from anywhere else. It’s always been here. It’s not something that can be imported. It’s not some- thing that can be given. It’s not something that can be received. Buddha realized that all sentient beings have the buddha nature, which means we are all perfect and complete, lacking nothing. Practice is a matter of discovering this truth. Running around, here and there, what are we search- ing for? We assume that something is missing; that we’re lacking in some way.
Some people think that if we study with as many teachers as possible, try as many different practices as we can, then maybe we’ll get it. But that’s just another form of entertainment? dharma entertainment. We have to pick one practice and give ourselves to it with the whole body and mind. That’s the only way that we will plumb its depths.
Huangbo said, “Do you know that there are no teachers of Chan in all of China?” This doesn’t mean that we don’t need a teacher nor that everyone is a teacher. This is what is called “buji” or self-styled Zen. There being no Zen teachers means that the teacher has nothing to give you. When someone tells you he or she has something to give you, beware. Run for your life. You’re dealing with a charlatan. No one can give you anything because each one of us is already perfect and complete, lacking nothing. In response to Huangbo’s teaching, a monastic steps forward and asks the obvious question, “Then what about those in various places who order followers and lead communities?” I ask you, is leading a community Zen? Is growing a garden Zen? Huangbo was saying that you have to realize it yourself. You need to do it yourself. You need to really be yourself, trust yourself. It’s not that there is no Zen, it’s just that it cannot be given and it can’t be received.
In various religions, there are different processes that are used to help people realize the truth about that particular tradition. In some religions there is a guru, a kind of spiritual guide to whom you basically surrender control of your life. The guru tells you what to do, how to do it, when to do it. And from this act of surrender, this act of giving up control of your life, you learn some- thing. In Christianity, priests or ministers are representatives of God, intermediaries between the congregation and the divine being. They are also the interpreters of God’s teachings. None of this applies to the role of a Zen teacher. Shakyamuni Buddha, in forty-five years of teaching, never uttered a single world. The teaching that was transmitted from Buddha to Mahakayashapa was beyond words and ideas. It was direct, mind-to-mind transmission. But keep in mind that the word “transmission” implies something going from A to B. Yet that’s not what happens in Zen. B already has what A has. It just needs to be realized. When realization takes place, the mind-to-mind transmission is complete.
Bodhidharma, regarded as the founder of Zen, said that Zen is a special transmission outside the scriptures, with no reliance on words and letters. It’s a direct pointing to the human mind and the realization of buddhahood. In other words, the realization of one’s own enlightenment.
There’s another story that tells of Huangbo’s meeting with the prime minister of China who later became the emperor. The two were friends, and one day the prime minister visited Huangbo and presented him with a book that he’d written in order to express his understanding of the dharma. Huangbo took the book without even looking at it and put it aside. Then he didn’t say anything for a long time. The two friends sat together in silence, and after a while, Huangbo turned to the minister and asked, “Do you understand?” The minister replied, “I don’t understand.” Huangbo said, “If you had understood this way, you would have gotten somewhere, but if you’re still trying to describe it with paper and ink, you’ll never get it.” Words and ideas that describe reality miss the direct experience of reality itself.
So what is the realization of one’s own enlightenment? Zazen is not it. Zen study, face-to-face teaching, the precepts, liturgy, body practice, art practice, work practice are not it. Then what is it? The eight gates are all upaya, skillful means to get us to realize that which is inherent in all beings. That’s why realization is transformative. Understanding doesn’t transform. Believing doesn’t trans- form, but when you realize it, you transform your way of perceiving yourself and the universe, and that’s not something that someone can give you. Taking it further, realization must be actualized. It must be manifested in everything that we do. This is what it means to come down off the mountain back into the world?back into our everyday lives. But before it can be actualized, it has to be realized. Otherwise, you’re just actualizing an idea, an understanding, a belief.
Photo by Dimitris Tsakanis
Some years ago I received a letter from a group of first generation American teachers who were organizing a conference called, “Methods of Teaching the Dharma.” They invited two hundred American dharma teachers to attend a series of lectures and workshops on how to teach. I remem- ber thinking to myself, but what have they been doing for the last twenty-five years? If they didn’t get out of their practice the process for teaching, then what is the transmission about? What good is it? If we don’t watch it, we’re going to turn this incredible dharma into another one of our edu- cational systems. The dharma is not about education?not even religious education. It’s practice. Practice means to do. It’s about training. Training means to do. And it’s out of that doing that a student surpasses the teacher. If that hasn’t happened, then the dharma hasn’t been transmitted from one generation to the next. You can have a hundred thousand lectures, workshops, and experts on teaching and it will never get across. The dharma cannot be put into a box with a nice label. It needs to come right from the heart, right from one’s own practice. If it’s not there, there is no way that it will affect and nourish the lives of others.
This is why our country is filled with self-styled Zen. We try to adapt it to suit our needs and preferences. We try to make it convenient for people. It’s too harsh, or it’s too difficult. Zen teach- ers around the country don’t want to lose their students, so they make it less harsh and less dif- ficult. But in the process of diluting it, they end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater and all we get is a watered-down version of a vital practice that has nourished the lives of hundreds of thousands of Buddhist men and women for 2,500 years.
Each step of the process, each step of the practice of Zen is the transmission. In each period of zazen the mind-seal is transmitted. When the time comes that the teacher and student both realize that the transmission is complete, the training’s over. The transmission ceremony is simply a formality that seals the process. What is the wisdom that has no teacher? What is it the truth that cannot be given because it has always been present? It’s a truth that all of us are born with and we die with it, whether we realize it or not. It is the ground of being inside of each one of us, covered by layers and layers of conditioning. It is that extraordinary truth that Huangbo speaks of, that the Buddha spoke of, that countless teachers have handed down from generation to generation. It’s just this. Not the idea. Not the thought. Not the understanding or the knowing. Not the words or concepts that describe it, but the truth itself.
When body and mind drop away, we hear sounds with the whole body and mind, we see form with the whole body and mind. This is the mind-seal of the buddhas and ancestors. There is no gain. There is no loss. That being the case, what can any teacher give you? What can be added? What is lacking? That’s what we really need to see. It means trusting yourself. It means trusting the process. The process can help, but the answers will u
ltimately always come from you. The process will create a matrix within which you can discover for yourself that inherent perfection, but ultimately, you have do it.
If you have the determination, if you have the faith in yourself and in the process, and if you have the doubt?the questions that drive you in your practice?then guaranteed, sooner or later, you’ll realize it. Great faith, great doubt and great determination?with those three pillars in place, there’s no question about it?you’ll do it. Realization is seeing the ultimate nature of all beings? your nature, buddha nature. Beneath all the layers of conditioning we’ve buried ourselves under lives a buddha, perfect and complete, lacking nothing. Whether you discover it or not is entirely in your hands. What will you do? More importantly, when will you do it?
The Blue Cliff Record or Hekiganroku is a collection of 100 koans originally compiled in China by Zen Master Xuedou during the Song dynasty (960?1279 c.e.) and later commented on by Zen Master Yuanwu. It is widely considered to be a model koan text, especially within the Linji (J. Rinzai) school of Zen.
Photo by David Morris