Primate of the Soto Zen Sect on controlling the Mind

Zen in China and Japan is divided into two main sects, Soto and Rinzai. Though they agree on fundamentals, the training differs a little, the Soto practising what may be called the original Zen, deriving from Buddha’s own meditation practice, whereas the Rinzai stress the importance of wrestling with certain riddles, technically called Koan. A famous one is the Sound of One Hand: ‘Two hands are clapped and there is a sound ; what is the sound of one hand ?’ When the riddle is solved—and it cannot be solved by the intellect—the disciple is enlightened, and not till then. The Soto practice is nearer to that of Vedanta ; the Buddha heart is already in man, and he has only to realise it. So also Shri Shankara teaches the doctrine of ‘ nitya-mukta’, ever enlightened ; the veiling and bondage of the Self are only apparent, not real.

What was it that Buddha wished to teach ? Was it sagacity, was it brilliant academic understanding ? Was his aim to encourage the reading of the scriptures, or asceticism or austerities ? In reality it was none of these. He simply wished to show all living beings how to set in order body and mind. The method of doing this is given in the classic on meditation called Zazengi: “ Think of not thinking of anything at all. How is one to think of not thinking of anything at all ? Be without thoughts,—this is the secret of meditation.” Being without thoughts is the object of Zen meditation; the control of body and mind is only a method of reaching it. When body and mind have been controlled, then from the ensuing absence of thoughts are born naturally and rightly brilliant understanding, perfect Buddha-wisdom, reading of the scriptures and devotion, asceticism and austerities. There are some who have too hastily assumed that holy reading, devotion or austerities have a value in themselves, but this is not the traditional Zen, as handed down through the great master Do-gen.

What is meant by absence of thoughts ?

The living Samadhi (highest spiritual experience) of all the Buddhas is no other than that state of absolute absence of thoughts. Taking the words literally, one might think it meant to be like a tree or a stone, but it is not that at all. It cannot be understood by our ordinary consciousness, but neither shall we get it by unconsciousness. We can only grasp it by experiencing it in ourselves.

Beginners, when they first hear that the secret of Zen is to be without thoughts but that it cannot be got by consciousness nor by unconsciousness, cannot understand at all what it can be, and are bewildered. Now instead of wondering how to get it, or trying to understand it or to analyze it, the essential thing is resolutely to take a leap into death, to give up one’s body and life itself. It means to cut off at the root and source, all our discriminating fancies. If we really cut them off at the root, then of itself the freedom from thought will come, which means that our own true nature appears, and this is called enlightenment. An ancient says : “ In Zen the important thing is to stop the course of the heart.” It means to stop the workings of our empirical consciousness, the mass of thoughts, ideas and perceptions. A great master said : “ Try to cut off thought. By this alone eight or nine out of ten people will attain the Way.” Attaining the Way is realizing the Buddha heart which is our own true nature. The radiance of the Buddha heart breaks forth from ourselves, the compassion of the Buddha flows out of the Buddha heart within us. We come to know that the majesty of Buddha is the majesty of our self also.

The doctrine of Karma is one aspect of Buddhism. In this doctrine, the whole phenomenal universe as perceived by us is understood to be an effect, corresponding to previous thoughts, speech and actions of the individual and of all living beings, which are the cause. In fact the whole phenomenal universe is experienced according to our Karma. The three forms of Karma, namely action of body, speech and thought, can all be embraced under the heading of actions of the mind or heart. Whether this heart is the Buddha heart or not is the cause which determines good or evil for us. And if we only stress our ego and do not cut off the thoughts, the Buddha heart does not appear.

The real difficulty of Zen meditation is how to stop the course of the mind, how to cut off thought. Some two and a half thousand years ago at Kusinara in India, the World- honoured One, Shakyamuni Buddha, was about to die. In the final teachings to his disciples, the last phrase of the warnings about mind and senses is : “ You must subjugate the mind.” This does not mean the Buddha-mind or Buddha-heart, but it means the egoistic heart of the ordinary man who employs his mind actively all the time. Was there ever any chameleon comparable to the human heart ? Just now it was happy and laughing, but all at once it is sad, then in a rage about something or other ; or fit wants to eat, or to sleep, to praise or to slander. In so-called women’s gossip the confusions of the mind become noisily apparent as speech. And so far it may be all right, but then there also spring up terrible things, robbery and ‘ murder,—all transformations of the egoistic heart. This is why in the Vijnana-vada (Consciousness Only) school of Buddhism, all changes are called transformations of consciousness.

As to whether the heart in itself is good or bad, some say good and some say bad, and there was also a view among the ancients that it is neither. However it may be, what is clear is that our hearts from morning to evening in their ceaseless activity undergo thousands and millions of changes and transformations, good or bad. Reason and morality tell us to take every possible care that we do not slip into a wrong path, but instead strive to pull the carriage of our life on the right road. An old poet sings : “ When you feel it pulling, do not loose the reins of the colt of the heart, which would enter the evil paths,” and again, “ In the cooking-pot of the world, cook well and not badly; the human heart is the free-moving ladle.” According to how much the free ladle is lifted and lowered, the things are cooked well or badly. The human heart is likewise fundamentally free.

They say that it is important all the time to give attention to the right path. But Zen does not speak of morality in this way. It is just a question of the Buddha heart, which tells us to take a step beyond, to end the coursing of the heart, to cut off the thought. Once and for all we have to cut off the working of the mind, which is the inner ego from which evil emerges. Buddhism teaches that the human heart has two aspects. They are, the pure heart and the impure heart. But the heart in itself is not two ; it is only classified in these two ways according to its workings. The pure heart is the pure heart of our own nature, our natural heart which is not a whit different from the Buddha heart.

Opposed to this is the impure heart which gives us no peace from morning till night, the egoistic heart of illusions, the passion-ridden heart. Because the selfish passionate heart is not natural, we are always afflicted with sufferings; endlessly this heart, absolutely careless, leads men astray.

Fundamentally our true heart, our true nature, is pure and infinite, like the moon clear in the blue sky. At some distant time past our knowing, it was tainted by passion and became the impure heart, something not our real selves but which came afterwards. But this which came afterwards becomes predominant and sets at naught the true heart, just as the concubine sets at naught the real wife. How often one has read in the papers that the steward of some large estate, or the manager of a great firm perhaps, has set at naught his masters and using the money for himself has brought ruin all around. Just in this way we entrust ourselves to the operations of the deluded and passion-ridden heart, so that the real master, the Buddha heart, cannot even show its face. The thoughts of the impure heart are topsy-turvy, for it sees reality as upside- down.

The villains who act as chief contributors to the delusion are what the World-honoured One called “ the brigands of the five senses ”. These five—eye, ear, nose, tongue and body-—receive all the tempting objects and convey them to the impure heart in order to satisfy it. For this reason they are technically called “ roots ”, because just so the roots of a tree convey the sap to the branches and leaves to satisfy them. Of course the mischievous operation of the senses is not natural ; their true working is not wrong. But the impure heart misuses them, and only lets them work in wrong directions. As it is said in Buddha’s last teachings : “ These five take the heart as their master.” So the wicked nature of the impure heart is compared to a venomous serpent or a wild beast. It bears off the life Which should develop into the Buddha who is our true nature. In our breast is coiled the poisonous serpent which is always breathing out the fire of the three poisons bringing on us agonies and sufferings.

To drive out the devilish impure heart and to enable the pure radiance to shine from the pure heart within us, the five senses have to be cut off. And hence it is said that we should cut off thought. How are we to do it ? There are several methods, but the Zen method is to sit in the meditation posture and swell with our breath and vitality the abdomen below the navel. In this way the whole frame is invigorated. Then we meditate, discarding body and mind. Now the delusions which are the impure heart come up without ceasing. We should make these fancies, coming one after another, the Koan (theme) of our meditation. What, after all, is this thought ? Where did it come from ? We penetrate with the spear-point of our meditation to the source of the successive fancies.

When we practise sitting in this way repeatedly and make progress in meditation, then of itself the meditation becomes deeper and fuller until there is no room for the fancies to show their heads. The practice is quite unrestricted, and the entry into the experience of truth is also unrestricted ; in the end the wonderful vision appears of one’s true nature, the experience of the absolute. This is called seeing one’s real face, and it is said that eight or nine out of ten people can achieve it (in this very life). The practice as described has nothing artificial about it, but though it seems easy it is not easy, and the old masters all had a hard time with it. There are many famous sayings about this, such as: “ After winning a hundred battles, now I grow old in great peace,” or “ How many times for your sake do I enter the green dragon’s cave where the jewel is hidden ! ”

There is another method. First in the same way filling the whole body with vigour, we wrestle with a Koan which the teacher gives us. The “ not ” of Master Jo-Shu, the “ tree in the fore-court ”, the “ true face ”, the “ sound of one hand ”,—any of them will do. It is a question of using the Koan to practise our meditation with all the force of our will, one-pointedly and without distraction. If there is the least little bit of discriminating in this meditation, it will fail completely. Suppose for instance we are meditating on the “ Sound of One Hand ”, though we try to understand this with the discriminating intellect, it will never be understood. We may think that we have understood it, but this is no more than the understanding of the discriminating impure heart, which thinks “ I ” and “ my ” and “ I do it Zen meditation means to cut off at the root the mind which thinks “ I understand it ”, and to enter the state where there is no impure discrimination, and that one who rests satisfied at the stage of intellectual understanding is far from the goal of Zen.

We are told to hear the sound of one hand, which alone cannot make a sound, and discrimination or analysis obviously cannot understand it. The essential thing is that the whole body and mind should be taken up with the Koan and no other thought should be able to arise, so that not only at the time of meditation but standing and walking and sitting and lying the meditation must continue without a break. Then all unknown the power of the meditation becomes ripe. Abbot Rei-Un seeing the peach flowers became enlightened, and Zen Master Kyo-Gen at hearing the crack of a bamboo. In the way our Karma may direct, heaven and earth are split apart in an instant ; as if a sluice had been opened, suddenly we attain bliss and life infinite.

Such was the enlightenment of the old masters, and of this the Zazengi classic says : “ Loosing and dropping off body and mind, see before you your true nature.” But there must not be any relaxation of attention; if there is even a slight wavering, then the karma does not ripen into the psychological moment, any more than in the case of a dead man.

Once one has penetrated completely into one of the KoattSy it is sufficient. The great Enlightenment is once for all ; if there had to be a repetition, it would not have been complete Enlightenment. Of course there is nothing against a man examining all the seventeen hundred Koans which exist in order to try the power of his vision of the true self, but it does not mean that one has to solve several of them in order to be enlightened. If in the way described one presses on with burning faith, throwing one’s whole power into the meditation, then it is absolutely certain that the time will come when he enters the living Samadhi of all the Buddhas. To adopt the method of Koan is called the Zen of “Awaiting Enlightenment”. But in Soto Zen the practice is just meditating earnestly in the realization of the Absolute, as the Buddha himself did, and it is not a question of wrestling with the Koan and waiting for Enlightenment. We should be grateful for this practice of earnest sitting in meditation which is the most important thing in the mental training leading to our real good, the bringing out of the Buddha light from our humanity. If it is done, then naturally through the Buddha heart our human nature is elevated. There is no distinction here of sharp or dull or clever or stupid. It is a fact that any one, if he devotes himself wholeheartedly to spiritual meditation without wavering, reaches the supreme state.

by rosen takashina (Primate of the Soto Zen Sect) and translated by Trevor Leggett


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