Zen and the Pure Esoteric School
The cultivation practices of Tibet evolved from the spiritual traditions of both India and China. The spiritual practices of other countries have also often been shaped by foreign imports. In the case of Japan, its spiritual history has many parallels to that of Tibet but to understand this country's cultivation practices, we must look to China rather than India for the roots of foreign influences. In particular, we must investigate the cultural influences of China's Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.) since it was this period of Chinese history that had the greatest impact on Japan's spiritual schools.
China's Tang dynasty can be described as a great mixing period when Indian, Japanese, Korean and Tibetan cultural trends interacted with China at their fullest. The most obvious proof of even earlier foreign interaction is the fact that the word "China" comes from the Ch'in dynasty, when foreigners mistook the name of the dynasty for the name of the country. Anyway, the Tang dynasty itself was a period of continuous and concentrated contact between various countries and Mainland China.
During China's Tang dynasty, there were three main pillars of Chinese society and culture: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The Buddhism of this period had by now developed into ten different schools of study, but the central sect in Chinese Buddhism was the Zen school established by Bodhidharma. It was because of Bodhidharma's pilgrimage from India that the Indian form of Zen had entered China. After its initial introduction, the Zen transmission continued through five successive Patriarchs until Zen finally became fully assimilated into Chinese culture.
Bodhidharma and his five successors, including the famous monk Hui-neng, were called "Patriarchs" because they had all attained enlightenment. They could not be called "Buddhas" as they would be delineated as the second Buddha, the third Buddha and so on. They were the founders of the Chinese Zen school who had achieved enlightenment and greatly influenced Chinese culture, and this is why they were therefore honored with the title of "Patriarch."
The Sixth Patriarch of Zen, Master Hui-neng, was an illiterate peasant before he became enlightened. The very fact that an individual who could not read became the Sixth Patriarch says much about the Zen school and the nature of the times. The Sixth Patriarch dispensed with much of the religious trappings of Buddhism that had developed over the years, and his way of explaining spiritual teachings to the people was very down to earth. Zen therefore became quite popular because it touched the people's hearts and minds, and became embodied in a form of expression that the common man could understand. As a result of this development, Buddhism's impact on the politics and culture of the times became so substantial that it ended up transforming the co-existing schools of Confucianism and Taoism as well.
In the Tang dynasty, the Chinese cultural influences, such as Zen, spread all over Asia, and even reached distant regions. America today is considered a superpower and wants to exert this type of influence, but it has never seen its culture infiltrate Europe nor the Orient in the same way that Tang China established a presence throughout Asia. While United States has definitely influenced the world, the transmission of its influence has not been due to a world-wide recognition of American life as representing "high culture."
During the Tang dynasty, many scholars came to China from Japan and Korea because they respected the Tang culture and wanted to learn everything that it possibly had to offer. The Chinese Emperor built a gigantic complex in Xian for all these visiting scholars. He welcomed them to stay for as long as they liked and allowed them to leave whenever they desired. There was no pressure on these visiting scholars, and many stayed in China to become citizens or even court officials. Others took what they learned back to their home countries, thus influencing their native cultures.
When you go to another country, one of the first things that usually impresses you is the environment, particularly the architectural structure of the buildings and layout of the land. At that time, the Tang architecture was perhaps the best in the world, hence it was imitated in other countries and was one of the ways in which Tang culture made a big impact on other nations. The visiting scholars from other countries also closely observed China's arts, its political system, the people's clothing and every other facet of Chinese culture, including the cultivation concepts of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. In the world today, Japan and Korea are the only two remaining places that have preserved any of the highest cultural developments of the Tang dynasty, for in China itself, practically nothing is left. But both Japan and Korea are also quickly losing what is left of their Tang dynasty heritage.
At the beginning of the Tang dynasty, since Emperor Tang Taizong's family name was Li, he started searching for a great religious master of the same name among the Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian schools of the time. The official state religion ended up becoming Taoism, rather than Buddhism, simply because of this emphasis on the last name; the founder of Taoism was Lao Tzu, who was also known as Li Lao-chun. Because of this similarity of names, Taoists priests during the Tang dynasty were accorded a slightly higher rank than Buddhist monks although both spiritual groups were greatly respected. Due to the imperial patronage, it was also during this period that Taoism finally congealed into a more formalized religion. Thus from the Tang dynasty on through to the Sung dynasty, Taoism became the official religion of the state.
Beneath the surface, most people felt that this was right because Buddhism was a cultural import whereas Taoism was "home-grown." However, the practice of Taoism in the Tang dynasty was entirely different from the original Taoism of the Han dynasty since anapana, the skeleton visualization method, Zen and many other features of Buddhist cultivation had already entered into it and become assimilated into its body of knowledge. In fact, one could say that Taoism had become a second Buddhism. As an example, when two Buddhists bumped into each other they would extend greetings by saying, "Amitofo." The Taoists, on the other hand, would say, "Wu liang shou fo," which meant, "The Buddha of Infinite Life." In fact, this was simply Amitofo's name translated into Taoist terms.
Buddhism by the period of the Tang dynasty had filled in most of the teaching gaps left by the lack of original Indian material. The Mahayana and Hinayana schools of Buddhism therefore existed side-by-side together due to the fact that a lot of the original source material had already been transmitted to China from India. The famous monk Xuan Zang (Hsuan-tsang) also returned from his studies in India during the reign of Emperor Tang Taizong. The Emperor so respected him that he had a team of nearly a thousand scholars assembled to help translate the Buddhist materials that Xuan Zang had brought back. All sorts of people helped in this translation project--Taoists, Confucians, even Manichaeists--and the result was a body of work that had a tremendous, almost immeasurable impact on Chinese culture. Because of this translation effort, the Consciousness-only prajna teachings of Maitreya Buddha (which form the Yogacara tradition) finally became available in Chinese, and this made the set of Chinese Buddhist translations virtually complete.
Manichaeism, which had a portion of its roots in Egypt and ancient Babylonia, also came over to China during this period, and Islam entered the country as well. Hence China continued to absorb various importations of foreign spiritual practices during this period and the Tang dynasty can be considered a great mixing period when a huge variety of peoples, culture, knowledge and information all intermingled.
As to the country of Japan, the first set of teachings to reach the Japanese from China were of the Buddhist T'ien-t'ai sect, but this sect was not an original Buddhist sect of Indian origins. T'ien-t'ai was a wholly Chinese invention founded by Master Chih-i during the Sui dynasty (581-617 A.D.), and it developed into a separate Buddhist sect itself on the fertile Chinese soil. Chih-i had set about to organize and categorize the entire set of Buddhist scriptures that had come to China, had added a relevant commentary, and paid particular homage to the Lotus Sutra as one of the central essences of this tradition. The Lotus Sutra became so popular with this patronage that today there is even a Buddhist sect in Japan (the Nichiren Shoshu tradition) that believes spiritual salvation lies in simply repeating the phrase "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo," which pays homage to the Lotus Sutra.
T'ien-t'ai was really the first Buddhist import into Japan from China, and created the Japanese Tendai sect, whereas the introduction of Zen was a later development. Still later, eventually the Esoteric Buddhism of China was also brought to Japan where it became the Shingon sect (the name Shingon comes from the Chinese word "chen-yen," which means mantra or mystic syllable). Hence the Japan of ancient times was like a mini-model of China, or like a greenhouse that received the best seeds or aspects of Chinese culture.
As a bit of background, the Chinese Zen school reached the peak of its development during the Tang dynasty. During this dynasty, Chinese Esoteric Buddhism also reached the peak of its development due to the influence of three great esoteric masters (Subhakarasimha, Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra). One of the disciples of these masters was Zen master I-Hsing who liked to study various Taoist matters such as the I-Ching, feng shui, astrology, and other esoteric sciences. He was not only a monk but a great astronomer and astrologer as well. Because of his teachings, many of the esoteric sciences in China all have a strong connection with this master.
Without even entering into a deeper discussion about the Taoism and Confucianism of this era, we can already see that the Tang dynasty was a very active period of intellectual, cultural, philosophical and religious development. But while this flourishing of Buddhist culture was happening in China, Buddhism was on its last legs in India, and was just about ready to die. Fortunately, most of the Buddhist sutras had by now made their way into China and were being preserved there.
The Esoteric Buddhism of this period was known by a number of different names such as the Tantrayana (Tantric Buddhism, or Tantra), Mantrayana (the Mantra Vehicle) and Vajrayana (the Diamond Vehicle, or Vajra Vehicle) school. The term "Tantrayana" comes from the fact that it is based on the Buddhist Tantras, "Mantrayana" follows from the school's heavy use of mantra in its cultivation practices, and "Vajrayana" was often used because the thunderbolt (vajra) featured as a key symbol in the school. Sometimes it was known simply as the Tantric tradition.
During the Tang dynasty, Esoteric Buddhism became quite popular in China because of its strong religious flavor. The colorful draperies of religion are what typically appeals to the common man rather than the strict injunction that you have to get out there and meditate in order to earn your own personal spiritual progress. Esoteric Buddhism also became popular among the intellectuals who enjoyed studying it because of its rich liturgy.
Esoteric Buddhism is essentially based on the Mahavairocana Sutra that talks about the primordial Buddha Vairocana, who is also called the Great Sun Tathagata. The school emphasizes the five elements, along with cognition, and says that realization can be attained by cultivating the body (through postures, mudras and signs), the voice (through mantra), and mind (through meditation). While Chinese Esoteric Buddhism can be partitioned into three or four main sects, such as the Vajra and Lotus-Womb Treasury sects, the partitions it uses are different from those used by the Esoteric school in Tibet. Nonetheless, this is the material you must study to know all the esoteric teachings that Nagarjuna brought directly from India.
If a person truly wanted to assimilate the real Esoteric School of Buddhism, they would do well to consult the original teachings of Nagarjuna, Maitreya and the Surangama Sutra. Readers who feel that the Tibet school is the be-all and end-all of Esoteric Buddhism should be cautioned that, more than any other cultivation school, this school in particular has developed a colorful coating which often deceives students into believing that a set of unusual artificial techniques must represent the highest teachings of spiritual attainment. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If you want to truly understand the true Esoteric school of Buddhism, you need not go to Tibet and roll around in all the extraneous religious flavorings, for this will no doubt mislead you and make you quite confused. Cultivation schools and techniques all develop an outer garb of religious coloring after some time, and the Esoteric Buddhism of Tibet is no exception to this rule. To really understand true Esoteric Buddhism and esoteric teachings, you must discard all these extraneous colorful garments and approach cultivation issues free of superstition. You must attempt to peel away their outer veneer to see what they really represent, and you must adopt a scientific, analytical approach to your study efforts.
To understand how much Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism has changed over time, we need only remember that the first esoteric Buddhist teachings that originated in India did not contain any chi mai practices or even sexual cultivation practices. While the original Esoteric Buddhism teachings do show pictures of various Buddhas together with their consorts, there were no actual teachings on sexual yoga because the pictures symbolized the harmonization of the yin and yang chi flows within your physical body.
The actual methods used by the original Esoteric school included mantras, mandala visualizations and various other techniques for cultivating samadhi and various psychic abilities. Hence the originally pure esoteric teachings were quite different than those later advocated by the Tibetan sects in that there was no such thing as chi mai practice, charms or special ceremonies to obtain specific results, Mahamudra, nor even sexual cultivation practices as we now find.
To expound upon the sexual cultivation practices that developed in Tibet, the various statues of the Buddhas embracing their consorts, so important to the Tibetan sexual cultivation practices, originally came from Esoteric Buddhism. They represented the fact that the human body embraces the potential of harmonizing its internal yin and yang chi energies. Most people though, when they do not engage in a strict practice schedule of spiritual cultivation, cannot harmonize their yin-yang chi energies by themselves. Thus in their cultivation or in regular life they often slacken their efforts and give in to lust when these energies arise.
If you are able to harmonize your body's twin chi during your life, then "Heaven and earth will find their place; All the life forms will be born." This is when you will become able to transcend the ordinary world and enter the genuine realms of real spiritual accomplishment. If you cannot accomplish this, you will remain the same as any other sentient being within the Desire Realm. You will continue to be born into a physical body due to lustful desires, and will die with lustful desires that keep on propagating this endless cycle. You will never learn how to either control or escape the rounds of birth and death, which only becomes possible upon self-realization.
In China, the teachings on these matters took a different form than in Tibet. In China a male Buddha was called a "Buddha Father" (Enlightened King) while a female Buddha consort was called a "Buddha Mother" (Enlightened Queen). In Tibet, however, a female Buddha was given a name that meant something like "Emptiness Wisdom Woman." A lot of people misinterpreted that name as meaning that a female consort would come flying out of the sky (Emptiness) in order to help you with sexual cultivation practices.
This misconception tells us how important it is to translate spiritual terms correctly, for the general wisdom level of every spiritual school tends to decline over time. An inevitable result in most cultivation schools is that later generations, lacking good teachers, will usually tend toward the literal rather than heart meaning of original cultivation texts, and thus their true message is eventually lost. Even now there are still professionals trying to reconstruct the real meaning of the Bible by correcting the mistranslations that have crept into it over the centuries.
Sexual yoga was not the only deviation first seeded by the Esoteric school. It is actually due to the widespread practice of Esoteric Buddhism during the Tang and Yuan dynasties that so many strange superpower practices exist in China today. Some examples include being able to chew up someone's business card and have it reassemble into a complete card once again, or to be able to silently summon snakes into a room, or burn holes in a cloth from a distance. One cannot say these practices are really Taoist or Buddhist, but only that they are indeed "outside paths" or deviant outgrowths of schools that were spawned by various esoteric practices. They do not amount to very much, but it is important to recognize their existence and initial origins.
As widespread and as popular as Esoteric Buddhism was in China, the intelligentsia rarely wrote about it. Instead, the upper levels of society devoted most of their time to writing about the Zen school, the Mahayana path, prajna transcendental wisdom, Consciousness-only teachings, and other lofty concepts. Esoteric Buddhism actually had its greatest support among the peasantry who liked its rich religious flavor. At one level it was an integral part of the popular culture and at yet it was not part of the culture at all.
During the Yuan dynasty (1280-1360) the Tibetan form of Esoteric Buddhism, including the Nyingma and Sakyapa teachings, entered China. This form was entirely different than the form of Esoteric Buddhism that had developed within China. During this dynasty, China was ruled by the invading Mongolians who, together with Tibetan lamas, assumed political posts through the land. Stationed all over the country, the lamas became the Emperor's eyes and ears and worked to help him consolidate his power. But this dynasty did not last long-essentially because it lacked sufficient merit. The lamas greatly abused their powers throughout China and were responsible for many terrible deeds. For instance, at a wedding ceremony a couple had to normally be blessed by the lama, and in many cases the bride was forced to sleep with the lama the night before.
Unfortunately, religious rule is rarely saintly, but is often cruel and stifling. This is evident from the slavery instituted in Tibet by the lamas, the persecutions conducted by the Christian Jesuits, and the merciless rule of the Moslems. No matter how pure and "godly" people would like to believe religions are, the top levels of most any religion are usually deeply immersed in political affairs, which are a wholly secular concern. Religions normally demand conformity with the status quo and faith without questions, so they have been responsible time and again for all sorts of terrible persecutions all over the world. America's insistence on a strict separation of Church and State is therefore highly commendable, for if you try to run a country according to religious concepts while ignoring the true practicalities of human nature and power politics, history has shown that a country will be on a road to ruin.
When the Mongols conquered China to establish the Yuan dynasty, the Han Chinese of the north (Chinese as an ethnic group are called the "Han" people) were the first to surrender while the Han Chinese of south China surrendered last. When the Mongolian rulers established various ranks of society, the Mongolians therefore became the first class citizens, foreigners the second class citizens, next came the servants of the Mongolians, then the northern Han, and finally the southern Han Chinese at the bottom of the social ladder.
The Mongolians even stratified the society into ten classes of people starting with the emperor and followed by the officials, the lamas, Taoists, doctors, artisans, skilled workers, and prostitutes. Only after the prostitutes came the scholars (intelligentsia) and then the beggars. Because of their cruelty and the way in which society was structured, it is quite natural that the whole country--especially the country's intelligentsia--turned against the government. China had become a Mongolian monastic country and the people hated the treatment they received, so everyone started looking for a way to overthrow these invaders.
The Shingon sect Esoteric Buddhism that went over to Japan from China is called "Eastern Esoteric Buddhism" as opposed to the "Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism" found in Tibet. The difference in names reflects a great difference between the two schools. In Japan, the sect was initially headquartered on Mount Koya and by tradition, women were forbidden from joining the men in practice. However, once a woman who was refused entry up the mountain made a camp at its base and succeeded in her cultivation, proving that ordinary females could also become Wisdom Knowledge Women (reach enlightenment). Thereafter the monks changed the rules and allowed women to ascend the mountain to study for a time.
While Shingon (Eastern Esoteric Buddhism) has not influenced the West very much, the Japanese version of Zen has greatly influenced the Western concepts of spiritual cultivation. Ironically, Westerners have tended to overlook the original source of the Zen teachings and typically credit Zen as being a purely Japanese invention. They also credit Esoteric Buddhism as a purely Tibetan invention whereas the source of both these schools can be traced back to China, and from there to India. For the most part, over time Japan has retained the outward form of these cultivation schools, but we can also say that it has lost any true understanding of their inner content and meaning. Likewise, what Japan has exported to others is just the outward form rather than the true heart or substance of spiritual cultivation. Now it is mostly show that lacks real content.
Because of Tang dynasty influences, China's impact on Japan can be seen in many areas, but two in particular. The first was the Japanese political system, whose original structure was based upon the Chinese imperial system and whose theoretical underpinnings were based upon Confucian ideals. The second area, which is more relevant to our study, was the spread of Buddhism in Japan.
When Buddhism initially arrived in Japan, it gradually assumed a great level of importance to the common people just as Buddhism holds in Thailand today. But even though Buddhism became the official religion of the state, the strongest feelings amongst the Japanese people revolved around the native Shinto sect, which is a local deity religion that also prizes sacred places of natural beauty.
To this day, Shinto is what most strongly matches the Japanese mind and spirit. However, if we were to research matters carefully, we will even find that the influences that shaped Shinto--which emphasizes that man, nature and Heaven are one--had a good portion of their roots in the Chinese Taoism of ancient times as well, and many Shintoists follow the moral codes of Chinese Confucianism. Nonetheless, in terms of understanding how various cultivation schools developed in Japan, we must reiterate that the Buddhism which most influenced the Japanese was the T'ien-t'ai school, which focused upon the Lotus Sutra.
The Zen School
The Buddhist Zen school (the Chinese name is Ch'an) was imported into Japan during the period of the Tang dynasty. By the end of the dynasty, it had split into five main sects which are the Lin-chi (Rinzai), Ts'ao-tung (Soto), Kuei-yang (Igyo), Yun-men (Ummon) and Fa-yen (Hogen) schools of Zen. What is left over in Japan right now is a little of the Lin-chi sect and some of the Ts'ao-tung school, but both are just a mere shadow of what they once were.
This is also the case in China, for in the period after Zen's division into the five different sects, it is not only in Japan where the real Zen became absent, but everywhere else as well. The people who claim to be of a certain sect today know the right words to say and the proper outward forms of the school, but everywhere the real heart of the matter is lacking.
Most people, when they speak of Zen today, are just engaging in empty talk and word play. Of course this is not the real Zen, for it is just an imitation of how the Zen masters recorded their experiences or made use of the sharp point of spiritual potential to help awaken qualified students. Nevertheless, this is just the shadow of the shadow of the bright light of Chinese Zen which once existed.
Quite a few colorful terms were once used to classify the teaching methods of the five Zen sects. We have the Lin-chi sect, which is known for its teaching method of the "Four positions of host and guest" or "Four selections (chosen ingredients)." The Ts'ao-tung (Soto) school is known for its "Five positions of lord and minister." The Kuei-yang (Igyo) school has its "Ninety-six Circular diagrams," the Yun-men school has its "Looking, Examining (Looking at yourself with introspection) and Sighing," and the Fa-yen school has its "Nine belts."
If we take the Yun-men school's "Looking, Examining, Sighing," it can be understood in the following manner. A student goes looking for his master to ask him, "What is the Tao?" The teacher looks straight at the student with eyes wide open and asks, "Do you see clearly? Do you understand?" Then, because the student does not catch his great spiritual meaning, the teacher just sighs in disappointment. Thus, we have our "looking, reflecting and sighing."
In the Zen school, the masters were always very strict in watching the students and were constantly examining their walking, their eating, their deportment and various ways of doing things. The teachers also insisted that the students be looking at themselves during each and every activity they performed. This school was therefore very similar to the Confucian school in that you would always be checking up on yourself through introspection as if you continuously had a mirror set in front of you. You would always be watching your mind and correcting your personal behavior.
In the Yun-men school, when you looked at yourself and saw what things were not quite right, we can say that you would acknowledge your observation with a bit of disappointment (a sigh). Of course you would correct yourself, but the sigh served as some acknowledgment that you had discovered a fault. That was one way of describing the "looking, reflecting and sighing."
Yun-men was a very strict master in instituting the practice of looking into the mind because he came from the Buddhist Vinaya school of discipline. When he walked around and found a student at some activity, he would shout, "Look!" to remind him to be mindful; practicing mindfulness was a specific meditation technique of Buddhism. When the students did not understand his meaning, Zen master Yun-men would often just sigh to himself in response. The Zen school was fierce and direct in its cultivation techniques, and it required students of high caliber to be able to follow this path and reach any sort of spiritual understanding or attainment.
As for the Lin-chi school, it was known for its teaching method of the "Four ranks," which were also called the "Four positions of host and guest" or "Four selections." Most people who know a little of Zen are able to match the four positions with various relationships between the subjective and objective view. But there is a real esoteric secret of this school that most people do not know. It starts with the fact that in all cultivation work, the chi mai and the physical body are all considered "guests." In other words, the five elements of the physical body, as well as the various experiential realms of samadhi, are all considered to be guests. The true mind of original nature, not the thoughts but that which knows, is the "host." This is the meaning behind Lin-chi's four positions of guest and host.
Whenever we are engaged in spiritual practice, we encounter two types of feelings. The first type are the regular physiological sensations of our physical body, and are definitely transient guests that come and go. Another type of feeling, which is a realization like a wordless "I know this," can also be considered a guest. However, that which ultimately stands behind these acts of knowing and realizing is the host.
The Consciousness-only or Mind-only school of Buddhism has similar terminology for this. It also declares that the thoughts produced, or that which can be known, are guests while that which can know them is the host. This is easy enough to understand, but the Zen school goes further, teaching that not only the things which can be known are guests, but the ability to know is a guest, too! This is the big esoteric secret of the Zen school. Furthermore, the things to know, the knowing quality and what knows them are all of the same "substance" or "fundamental essence." As to who is the actual host, you have to see this for yourself to understand, for this is the whole purpose or point of spiritual practice. When you realize the true host, that means you have succeeded in attaining enlightenment, seeing the Tao, or realizing the fundamental essence.
The Zen teachings say we are all originally Buddhas, that we are all originally enlightened and always exhibiting that original enlightenment, but we cover our realization of this intrinsic enlightenment through ignorance because we have become unclear. In other words, Buddhas as well as ordinary people are fundamentally the same because they share the same base of perception. Furthermore, the moment when ordinary people see the effortless empty awareness of our original being is called the beginning of spiritual awareness.
In the Zen school, the ability to know things is still considered a guest rather than the ultimate master because it is still just a function of the original nature, which is itself the ultimate host. It is just a function of the master, so it is still a guest of the absolute host. As to who the host is behind the ability to perceive or know, once again that is for you to find out, and Zen practice is what points you in that direction.
When through the practice of spiritual meditation you can clear your thoughts enough to recognize and activate the nature of your transcendental wisdom awareness which is always present, then you will have made great progress on the road of spiritual practice and genuine spiritual accomplishment will become within your reach. However there is still a thin line between becoming enlightened or remaining an ordinary individual at this stage of attainment because this direct knowing is still a guest of the original nature.
This is the great secret of the Zen school--the primordial wisdom nature of direct knowing is still considered a projection of the original nature. As Yung-chia said, "Mind is the sense, and phenomena are the object. Both are like flaws in a mirror. When the flaws and dirt are gone, only then does the light show. When mind and phenomena are both forgotten, essential nature is real."
If this is the case, we have to then ask ourselves, where is the host? Well the host is also the guest, or there is only one big host and no one knows what it is, or there is not any host because it, too, its ultimately empty. Get it? Not really, because only a person who becomes awakened can ultimately understand. That is why when Emperor Wu first interviewed the first Zen master Bodhidharma and asked, "Who is it that stands in front of me?," the enlightened Bodhidharma replied, "I don't know." Zen master Bodhidharma was not playing tricks or cheating the emperor. In fact he was telling him the truth and giving him a tremendously high level teaching at the same time, but the emperor could not fathom it and so Bodhidharma went on his way.
In discussing the four positions of host and guest, sometimes the host becomes a guest, sometimes the guest becomes a host, sometimes the guest remains a guest, and sometimes the host remains solely the host. The guest being a guest refers to examples of people meditating and getting samadhi. But sometimes the guest turns into the host, and sometimes the host solitarily shines. For example, Shakyamuni Buddha's famous phrase that he uttered when he was born--"throughout Heaven and earth only I am the honored one"--is an example of only host. We must be very careful when classifying various experiential states in this manner, however, because many of the stages of cultivation, especially as regards the Hindu Mahavakyas such as "I am Brahman," are still only a state of guest rather than a state of only host.
Whether or not these positions of host and guest come and go is not really the important matter, for what is really important is your wisdom as to how to use them. How skillful you function is what matters. In other words, what you do with your mental states and environment and how you use them is what counts. That is why Lin-chi's method is also called the method of the "Four selections," because you have to choose what to do with your awareness, the spiritual experiences, and meditational gong-fu that are available to you.
For instance, sometimes you might need to cultivate samadhi to transform your physical body. When your body needs sleep, as another example, you should just let the guest become the master and take the rest you need. The true mind ground is definitely the ultimate master or host, and your gong-fu is definitely a transient guest, so which one you emphasize under the special circumstances of place and time is all up to you and your wisdom. Before realization, and after self-realization, spiritual cultivation is all about how you use your wisdom and express it through phenomenal behavior.
How to cultivate correctly is the process of juggling master and guest and responding properly to the situations that arise in the world. To put it another way, how you employ the great functioning of your essential nature is all up to you, and is the same decision though couched in different words. As Zen master Kuei-shan said to his student Yang-shan, "All that is important is that your eye (perception of the Tao) is correct, and so I won't talk about your practice (because managing affairs is up to you)."
The "selection process" that Lin-chi mentioned can therefore be compared to the Taoist simile of boiling rice, which entails making constant adjustments to a fire underneath a rice pot to cook the rice without burning. If the heat is too high under a pot of rice, you must turn down the fire while if the heat is too low, you must turn up the fire. Everything comes down to how to transform the situation into something better, and that all comes down to how to skillfully use what you have.
This is another way of saying that once you become enlightened and realize your original essence of being, everything ultimately boils down to your behavior. It all comes down to what you choose to do with your thoughts and actions. What you do with your thoughts, your outward behavior, your gong-fu and so on is all a matter of your own wisdom. That is how you express the Tao, which are your options of "great functioning."
People ordinarily think that enlightenment means sitting quietly and attaining a state of mental peace, but true enlightenment actually means being able to function in the world without dropping into or becoming deceived by money, fame or whatever else comes your way. When you can play with all these leafs which blow your way, then they also fall within the categories of the four selections. But if you become attached to them, for instance if you drop into love or sexual desire, you become totally guest once again because they entrap you. If you can see them and skillfully play with them as illusory things, then they will never touch you at all.
Only you can decide what you are going to do with your functioning abilities that originate from this fundamental nature of ours, just as only you will ultimately know how to adjust yourself on the spiritual path. A master can help guide you and answer some of your questions, but it is you who must ultimately put everything into play. Only you can save yourself by awakening, because no one can do it for you.
No one--no master, God, Buddha nor deity--can take your place and become enlightened for you. This is true no matter what beliefs you have, what school you belong to, nor what supplications you make. You have to cultivate spiritual practice, and awaken yourself. People can teach you, but you must save yourself. A spiritual master can only guide you rather than actually liberate you (otherwise we would not need to cultivate in the first place), and if you do not cultivate then there is no such thing as spiritual liberation. Some people do not want to hear this, but that's the gist of the story.
You must personally work on increasing your wisdom stores is you want to spiritually awaken, for the act of liberation will come down to the efforts you make yourself. You are the one who has to row the boat across to the other shore because other people cannot row the boat for you. The funny thing is that you are already on the other side (since we are all fundamentally enlightened) but because of ignorance and delusion-which is the wrong use of your mind-you are not aware of this. You are fundamentally enlightened but cannot recognize this inherent enlightenment because you cling to self-imposed ignorant mental habits.
Because the Zen school is built upon these principles, the Tibetans say this is real esotericism, that this is the real esoteric school. It is not as if you awaken to some profound realization of intellectual insight and then do not have anything to do anymore. You have to awaken to the Tao by experientially realizing your original nature, and then you must still continue to work hard at your cultivation to dissolve the lingering habit energies that can intrude upon this enlightenment now and then. It is just that after you become enlightened and keep working at spiritual practice, the doing and the effort become effortless.
Unfortunately this is all very hard to understand, otherwise we would have many enlightened Zen students in the world today, or the enlightened of other schools as well. All our guests--all the dust or phenomena we encounter in our minds--are the root of our frustrations, but they are also the roots of enlightenment. These dusty guests are also great jewels for if we did not have them, everything would just be inert emptiness lacking life and awareness.
Once you understand this, you can be in charge of a powerful army, become a great statesman, manage a giant multinational firm, write great literature or paint wonderful paintings. You can do anything you like while following the true road of spiritual attainment. You can go to heaven or hell and still be saved. To achieve spiritual realization, the path ultimately comes down to how you cultivate, practice, increase and use your inherent wisdom nature.
The Zen school is extremely profound, and if you suspect that the Zen masters were difficult to fathom, then you would be absolutely correct. For example, Master Te-shan would ask you something and tap you with a cane. Lin-chi would shout at you, or just shout. Yun-men would hold up some item at dinner and ask, "What is it?" Zen master Chao-chou would say, "Have some tea, have some tea." Everybody had a different method of directly pointing to the inherent fundamental essence of your mind, and each had their own method of encouraging their students to work hard at cultivating the spiritual path for self-realization.
Sometimes it was very confusing for Zen students. Lin-chi used a stick, and sometimes he hit you if you were right, sometimes he hit you if you were wrong, and sometimes he hit you just to test you and see how you would react. The Zen masters did not all use a stick; some of them would just swear. Whether you were right, wrong or something else, they would curse at you all the same. Hence it is not very easy for modern people to understand the teaching methodologies of the ancient Zen teachers, or even the true meaning behind many popular Zen stories. People have enough of a difficult time trying to understand one another, so imagine the difficulty in trying to interpret stories of a transcendental nature, written in an ancient language, from a foreign country, that had an entirely different culture.
Zen master Lin-chi is a particularly difficult figure to understand because he used crazy, playful methods throughout his life. Before passing away, he recited a simple gatha to his disciples, which explained everything quite clearly. Just before dying, he sat up in the lotus posture, asked for a pen and paper, wrote down his poem, threw away the pen, and then instantly departed. The gatha read:
In other words, the flow of thoughts in the mind is never ending (out of exasperation) what can be done about this flow? That which can perceive--that boundless awareness which can watch the stream of thoughts--if it can take itself out of the stream and just watch the flow of thoughts go by, then when you are in that state and observe this without getting attached, this is almost the host. It is almost the host, and still not the host because it is still just one of its functions.
There are no words nor language to describe this ultimate one, there is no experiential realm one can mention. That ultimate thing is something none can describe because it has nothing to do with name and form. After you use your mind and complete some particular activity in the ordinary world, you must quickly return to that original state of emptiness once again. You let thoughts be born when you need them, and then after the task is done, return your functioning to the state of silent potential that is at one with your original nature. Naturally the final line was also referring to the fact that Lin-chi was now leaving, and so he passed away.
In the Ts'ao-tung sect, the explanation of the "Five positions of Prince and Minster" became popular and was quite similar to Lin-chi's "Four positions of host and guest." For example, sometimes the minister would advise the Prince, sometimes the prince would not listen to him at all, and so on. Zen master Ts'ao-tung's method was very similar to Lin-chi's method, but the way in which these two masters ran their temples was very different. Lin-chi was very open, had a lot of style and pizzazz whereas Ts'ao-tung was very strict with his temple. The two schools had similar ideas, but their teaching styles were very different.
Rather than speak of spiritual cultivation teachings in Buddhist terms, Ts'ao-tung liked to use the terminology of the I-Ching in addition to employing his analogies of the prince and minister. For instance, the Li trigram of the I-Ching can be used to represent the sun, and so Zen master Ts'ao-tung used it to represent the great mirror wisdom of our original nature. Carrying this example further, the Li trigram has two yin lines wedged in the center of its yang lines. The yin within can be taken to represent scattered thoughts, body sensations, or one's practice not going well. The yang lines surrounding the yin lines can be used to represent the vast formlessness attained in samadhi. Ts'ao-tung used many I-Ching concepts in this way, and through these skillful efforts he attracted Taoists and others to the path who also used his metaphysical explanations to probe Chinese cultural teachings at deeper levels than hitherto possible.
Even though masters Lin-chi and Ts'ao-tung used very simple direct pointing methods in their teaching, later scholars needed reams and reams of paper to try and explain the essence of Zen and how to realize your fundamental nature. However, even with this voluminous output, many still could not arrive at a clear conception of spiritual cultivation or communicate its essence with any accuracy. Sometimes they made matters worse by interjecting even more confusion into the fray.
There are many places in Japan that currently claim they are the pure lineage transmission of ancient Zen schools, but this does not mean these practitioners have actually achieved any genuine Zen awakening. In fact there is virtually no place in the world where people really understand the enlightened essence of the original Zen schools. You can find the Japanese Zen students laughing at China and saying it is empty of Zen, but actually, the entire world is empty of Zen, and Japan is no exception to this rule. Japan only exhibits the outward form of Zen today and lacks the heart of the matter.
There was a famous Zen master called Ta-hui who had personally investigated the situation in most of the Chinese Zen halls during the Sung dynasty. He uncovered the fact that the Zen tradition had already remarkably degraded. He said that people were now practicing "the misguided Zen of silent illumination." It was not true Zen, but just the practice of silent sitting. Today the situation is even worse.
At that time and even now, people think that meditating to achieve samadhi is Zen. Of course this is wrong, for samadhi is just a state of concentration and is only part of the whole spiritual picture. It is only a particular practice vehicle or practice station to help you learn how to cultivate mental purity. You cultivate samadhi as an intermediate step so that your mind becomes clear, your wisdom nature shines and through its illumination you can begin to recognize your fundamental nature. If you do not need to cultivate the intercessory training stages of samadhi because you can achieve the Tao directly, as the Surangama Sutra and Complete Enlightenment Sutra teach, then you do not have to bother cultivating them as is done on the Hinayana trails. However, this direct cognition requires great prajna wisdom.
If you think that keeping the mind quiet is the way to self-realization, as some people who teach "transcendental meditation" proclaim, this is making a big mistake. It hearkens back to the mistaken notion that "no-thought is the path." Even in Ta-hui's time, Zen had degraded to such an extent that the practice of submerging thought to attain silence within mistakenly became the common road of spiritual practice. This is despite the fact that the Buddhist Surangama Sutra reminds us,
Since this decline in Zen had already taken place as early as the Sung dynasty, and since people are still employing these same mistaken spiritual cultivation methods today, do not expect to see a resurgence in true Zen for quite some time. Perhaps one or two individuals might try to re-institute the school of direct pointing to the true mind, but in our current situation, there would hardly be any qualified students. For the real Zen school to emerge, we must first see an increase in the general practice of spiritual training techniques and methods, and a greater understanding of the path.
Even people who try to preserve the outward forms of Zen make mistakes instituting what they believe to be the old Zen traditions. For instance, Te-shan's cane was originally used, in the manner of Yun-men's sigh, to make a light gesture symbolizing reward or punishment, but in today's world the Zen cane is often mistakenly used in a more heavy handed fashion. As to other misinterpretations of the old traditions, let us not even go into them.
Modern Zen masters like to teach that "sitting in meditation is Zen," so practitioners sit there mimicking an outward silence while playing with their internal thoughts. Whether you use the cultivation methods of India, China, Tibet, or the West, most people make this same mistake of playing around with their mental chatter during their meditation period. This is the major problem within all spiritual schools and one of the major reasons people cannot make any genuine spiritual progress. In truth, you can go to Church, or to the temple or mosque or synagogue every day, but if you do not know how to correctly practice spiritual exercises, there is really little benefit to these efforts other than to accumulate a little merit.
The Zen school is also famous for the method of the koan (kung-an or hua-t'ou in Chinese), which was originally developed to help counter our normal tendency to play with our thoughts in meditation, but people typically take even this medicine incorrectly. It is very important to understand the koan technique, which was originally just a tiny method in Zen whose actual importance has been magnified out of all proportion.
Actually, the koan was first mentioned by Wei Bo-yang who used this method of investigation in the process of cultivating, understanding and awakening to the Tao. It has become a popular research topic for scholars because it gives them something to translate and write about. It has also become a core feature in the modern Japanese and Western schools which try to institute Zen practice. Thus it perfectly illustrates the decline of Zen in that such a low level technique has become a prominent center of cultivation attention.
The history behind the development of the koan technique is quite instructive. Many years after the Sung dynasty, the Zen teachers noted that the roots of wisdom of the Zen students in China were not as good as before. Essentially, students had started to cling to the mind and body of the immediate present as the Zen potential, so the Zen school had begun to deteriorate.
Up to this point we have covered many possible errors or pitfalls on the road of spiritual practice, but not this one. We have found that just concentrating on freeing yourself from this world while neglecting the quality of interactions with other human beings will produce a warped society, and so it is not a correct spiritual path. We have found that you can actually cultivate a stage of samadhi to go on living forever, but clinging onto samadhi is not correct spiritual practice, and cultivating the physical body is incorrect as well.
Other mistaken forms of physical cultivation include cultivating your internal chi channels and chakras or ingesting herbs and minerals in order to reach various spiritual realms. The act of trying to use other human beings and their energy streams through sexual cultivation also is not correct, nor are quite a few other spiritual approaches we have examined. Now we finally come to a current problem that is starting to plague society, which is the idea that cultivating the reality or awareness of the immediate present is the spiritual path.
The problem with this sort of technique is subtle but extremely important: It does not differentiate between ordinary mind and intrinsic spiritual awareness. You can indeed produce a realm of mental stillness and purity through this sort of devoted practice, but it will be a stagnant state of false clarity, or dry wisdom. It will not produce the natural physical transformations required of the spiritual path, and cannot penetrate into the various spiritual realms. Neither will it ultimately free you from the realm of birth and death.
To just cultivate the present moment of awareness is to naturally go along with the rise and fall of mental phenomena. The problem is, this means to ultimately go along with birth or death when they come, and so this path does not ultimately free you from the rounds of birth and death or teach you how to master this endless cycle. Perhaps you can achieve a stable state of unimpeded consciousness through this sort of not-dwelling, but certainly not a state of spiritual liberation, salvation or omniscience as in enlightenment. This practice is deficient because it lacks the accompaniment of meditation effort, and without this accompanying effort, you will never experience the physical transformation of the path or attain to the various spiritual realms of attainment.
In short, the spiritual path is not one of just being clear or present. It is not just a matter of realizing the "Now!" To keep dwelling in immediate awareness is still the same as delusion because it only seeks being natural without doing any real meditation work. The subtlety behind this mistaken path is hard to catch, for as a famous Zen proverb warns us, "The field of equanimity is littered with the skulls of the dead, for only the able can navigate through the forest of thorny problems." In short, this is not the correct road of spiritual practice because this naturalism leads nowhere.
Let us put it yet another way: Naturalism is not the correct road of spiritual practice, being present in the immediate moment is not the correct road, and simply cultivating silent awareness is not correct either. The problem of cultivating a stage of stale, sterile or dry but clear emptiness was an inevitable decline seen in the Zen school, and so the Zen masters had to invent some technique to free people from this sort of stillness. This is why the koan was invented, for within the state of mental stillness, there is still a question which everyone has to resolve and cannot yet answer.
To concentrate upon a koan, you focus all your thoughts on a particular saying. You let your thoughts get all tangled up in the matter until through mental concentration, you finally break through to a level of mental clarity and emptiness never experienced before. From there you can begin correctly contemplating the mind. In other words, you use your concentration on a koan to somehow enter into the one-pointed clarity of samadhi and when samadhi mental stillness is reached, you use that stage of emptiness to cultivate prajna transcendental wisdom. You use this stage of silence to contemplate the real mind, for the silence is still a mental creation, and not the ultimate stage of emptiness, formless or selfless that constitutes the Tao.
The phrase, "contemplate the mind," is similar in meaning to the cessation and contemplation practices of the T'ien-t'ai school. While the koan may help you break through normal mental chatter to reach some stage of mental emptiness, you must still rely on prajna wisdom to investigate the source of that emptiness. Where does it come from? How do you know it? What is this mind that knows it, from where is this awareness that knows it coming? What prepositionally stands behind it, and behind your knowing it, and behind both of them?
The koan does not involve solving a riddle in a psychological sense, but involves experientially arriving at the answer to these sorts of questions in the sense that you reach a mental stage where your wisdom finally breaks forth. However, because of the increasingly academic interest in Zen, people have come to view it from a purely materialistic, psychological angle. If they did not view it from this angle, then the academics would not have much to write about! Remember that the academics are not paid to spiritually practice or break through to ultimate reality. Rather, they just want to exercise their intellectual functions, secure their tenure, and say they understand everything without ever having achieved a rank of spiritual attainment themselves. To be able to analyze matters is one thing, and to actually attain that state of spiritual realization is another.
A problem related to the interpretation of koans and public Zen cases is that people who study these old cases begin to truly believe they understand their meaning without ever having engaged in cultivation practice and having reached those same mental stages themselves. It is like a priest giving advice to couples on how to handle their marriage when he has never been married himself, or like a person who imagines what ocean water is like without ever having tasted it.
Scholars are not the only ones who deceive themselves into believing that they understand these matters or other esoteric knowledge. Actually, the only true sort of understanding comes from cultivating those same states yourself, and this requires an enormous amount of cultivation practice which people would like to dispense with or be excused from. People do not like to hear that many masters only saw the Tao after meditating for twenty or thirty years at the rate of eight to ten hours or more per day! They would rather learn to speak the attractive language of Zen, and once they become fluent at speaking "lip service Zen," it is easy to cheat themselves and feel as if they understand everything.
To correct such errors, the great masters have always warned people that they must both study spiritual cultivation theory and engage in meditation practice so that the two might be mixed together like water and flour, for one without the other is useless. In particular, the Zen masters warned that when people attempted to study Zen without a thorough knowledge of and grounding in the Buddhist scriptures and teachings, it was like trying to run before learning how to walk.
There were two types of koan that were basically employed in Zen instruction and it is useful to know this because of what it teaches us. The first type had an actual meaning such as, "Who is the one that remembers Buddha? Who is it that thinks?" or "Who stands behind the thinker?" Even though this first type of koan has an answer, you are not supposed to think about the question and come to a logical solution, but rather to use the questioning mood generated by the koan to achieve some form of mental breakthrough.
You do not want an intellectual answer when "investigating" a koan because what you are really after is to enter a particular mental realm. Investigating the koan to the stage of one-pointedness helps you get there by tying up all your extraneous thought chatter. You basically engage the mind in a particular fashion, designed to halt your normal incessant voluminous outpouring of thoughts, so as to create a clearing impact on your mind beyond your normal level of intellectual comprehension. This is the point where prajna wisdom can be born because the regular scope of your mind becomes clear. Upon the birth of quiet observation you can then fathom or investigate the true nature of your mind and arrive at a realization of your original nature. In short, the spiritual path always requires that you investigate any stage of stillness or emptiness you mentally reach. You do this with transcendental wisdom to fathom its ultimate origins.
The second type of koan has no logical meaning at all, such as, "What is Buddha?--A dry piece of shit." In this type of koan, the mind gets totally tangled up in befuddlement trying to fathom the meaning of the koan. It gets wrapped around the koan like a piece of wire that someone winds around an egg, and progressively pulls tighter and tighter, until the egg finally breaks. But after the egg breaks, which means after the mind finally jumps out of its normal state of confusion and mental chatter so as to reach a profound realm of mental clearing, you still have to mix the egg. That is, you still have to use contemplation to look into what was produced. Using the wordless clarity knowing awareness of your original mind, or function of prajna wisdom, you must investigate this state of emptiness and try to fathom the origins of this emptiness and awareness.
The Zen school says that you should break an egg, use it to make a cake, and then eat the cake, but people today do not even know how to take the first step of breaking the egg. They just cannot seem to arrive at any realm of mental emptiness, or quietude. They just cup the egg tightly in their hands and hold onto it until a chicken is hatched, which produces another chicken and then another and then another and so on. They analyze things by producing an endless stream of thoughts, and thereby never reach any state of mental peace that we might term even the shadow of samadhi. This is why they never reach any type of mental breakthrough or definitive stage of spiritual transformation. They just spin thought-form after thought-form rather than achieve higher and higher stages of emptiness that approximate the Tao.
In pursuing a koan or public Zen case, you are to focus your mind to an extreme extent of one-pointed concentration, and then stay in that state until you go beyond and totally abandon any normal state of mentation. Once you make the breakthrough to a stage of emptiness, you must stay in that state of non-dual awareness, for that perseverance or saturation is true spiritual training. That is true spiritual practice. You must remain in this pollution-free mental state, investigate it, and integrate with it so that it becomes your constant state of awareness. You have to somehow generate a state of samadhi and then carry it around with you always, ever working to make it more and more pure.
Thus when people say that Zen is the cultivation route for today, they are ignoring the questions: Where is the real Zen, where are the genuine teachers, and where are the qualified students? Today you have to approach cultivation strictly in collaboration logic and the modern disciplines of science and medicine and experiential proof. The faith requirement of religion is dead because it just does not work anymore for most people, and it was not necessary in the first place. The educational level of the general culture has greatly increased over the last two thousand years, and since this is what society now demands then this is the new way in which you will have to present spiritual teachings. You have to understand all these various topics, and then combine them all skillfully into a single cultivation path that can be your guide throughout the Three Realms, and through life and death.
Like Shakyamuni Buddha, Confucius, Wei Bo-yang, Lama Tsong Khapa, Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas, you have to make sense out of everything that is in front of you and organize it into one comprehensive structural whole. You cannot just discard something because it does not appeal to you or follow your limited pattern, but you must strive to understand how it fits into the entire scheme of things. All the different teachings of the world's spiritual schools and all the things which arise in front of you-including every possible spiritual scenario--are all guests. So, paraphrasing Lin-chi, we might say that sometimes you should use this guest and sometimes another to make spiritual progress and arrive at an awakening. All the guests are welcomed by the host, for it is how you deal with them which matters. This is the real exhibition of genuine spiritual achievement.
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