Repentance and the destruction of sins
By the merit of a single sitting He destroys innumerable accumulated sins.
How should there be wrong paths for him?
The Pure Land paradise is not far,
THESE lines speak of the virtue of sitting-in-meditation, and especially in regard to repentance and the destruction of sins. The Sixth Patriarch, explaining the word zazen or sitting-in-meditation, says: “In the outer world of good and evil, when not a thought arises in the mind, that is called za (sitting); inwardly, to see one’s own nature and not be moved, that is called Zen (meditation) / ’ The ‘ ‘wrong paths’ ’ of the verse are those which lead ultimately to reincarnation as a dweller in hell, as a ghost, or as an animal. If the meditation practice is really done, then the merits are as great as declared in the Song. The important thing in practising Zen is not so much the length or shortness of the time, but that the mind should be in a state where the meditation is steady and continuous. When it is said that those who perform meditation for even one session destroy innumerable accumulated sins, it means that if this meditation goes into the real Samadhi, then a single session has this great power. One session means a single sitting, as when we set up a stick of incense and do not leave our meditation till it has burnt down.
There are directions for the practice. In a place, which must be quiet, lay a thick cushion and seat yourself on it in an upright posture. First swell out the “field of the elixir” (tanden), namely the abdomen below the navel, and put your strength there. Let the shoulders be directly below the ears, and the navel below the nose. Make the spine straight. The mouth should be shut and the eyes slightly opened. The breath should flow gently. In this correct posture, meditate on the koan which you have been given, or in the case of beginners practise counting the breaths. By this last method dull and distracted thought is eliminated. Then, entering the Samadhi of undisturbed purity, remain in meditation. Those who are really determined should look at the small classic called Zazen-gi for the details of the method. [ These details are given in Chapters II and III of A Tongue- tip Taste of Zen.]
Of course it may be that there are those whose insight and inner nature are so advanced that they would not necessarily require to practise exactly in the way described, but still there are many advantages in beginning in the orthodox manner. If the practice is truly carried out, one session of meditation is one session of Buddha; a day of meditation is a day of Buddha. Or as an ancient has said: “One inch of meditation, one inch of Buddha; so inch by inch, to the six-foot form of Buddha.”
If we do our meditation practice properly, then the uprising thoughts, though they be the sins and impediments accumulated for eons past, will be extinguished of themselves, and then where should the wrong paths be? The Pure Land paradise is not far. We enter the state where this very body is the Buddha. The thing to be kept in mind for meditation is the great conviction that this is the path that can save us, and it is only this path that can save us. The attitude of trying just to see what it is like, or as an experiment, is not appropriate in such a serious business. Underneath the great faith you will come upon the great questioning, and then if you whip up your efforts with great determination and rush on ahead, below the great questioning there is found the great realization, and without any doubt know that you will have it.
Apart from attaining full realization, to be able to sit quiet for a time and turn one’s attention within’is a great advantage in ordinary life, and this is one aspect of zazen. People these days have their heads boiling with thoughts and are ever turned outwards as if searching for something. They have forgotten how to still the heart and turn within for the inward vision. They know how to take a step forward, but not how to withdraw a step.
At the cross-roads there are lights, Go and Stop, to control the traffic. If there were only the Go and not the Stop, accidents would be inevitable. The Stop is essential. Modern people only strive to rush on, as if they were all in a horserace, and they have lost the power of withdrawing and reflecting. They go ahead and go ahead, but in the end there is a deadlock, a real traffic jam, and they finish as pathetic victims of spiritual disaster. By paying attention to how to withdraw, by turning within and reflecting, one can reach the inexhaustible treasure there, can experience directly the Amitabha Buddha in the heart and the Pure Land paradise in the body.
In daily life when anger rises, when we are at the end of our patience, if before the outward explosion we restrain ourselves and turn within to reflect for five minutes, almost always relief will be found. A man once told me: “I am naturally quick-tempered, which was a disadvantage to me and a nuisance to others. But now when I get angry and resentment pours through me, I do not express it but shut my mouth and at once go before an image of the Buddha. I join my palms and sit five minutes in meditation. My family have taken to the idea also, and now we do not have quarrels. To have heard of the method of meditation has been a wonderful thing in my life.” If we really mean to do it, we can always find the five minutes for sitting quiet even in the midst of affairs. It is no exaggeration to say that by this five minutes’ margin almost all of the problems of daily life, great and small, can be solved. And if meditation is done deeply, the accumulated sins are destroyed and we can avoid creating new ones.
As to sins, there are those who complacently feel that after all they have never done any great wrong in their lives. Thus to feel that there have been no sins, to be unconscious of the sins, not to be fearful of committing sins— this in itself is a great sin. In Mahayana Buddhism, even if I myself be supposed to be without sin, yet while there is any sinner anywhere I must feel repentance for his sin. But when I reflect in silence, I inevitably realize how terrible and frightful are the sins of deed, word, and thought that I have been committing unknowingly from time immemorial. It is easy to refrain from murder or from theft in the physical sense, but are we not always committing those sins spiritually? It is no rare thing today for a man’s life to be wrecked by others through the power of tongue or pen. Then there are the negative sins, cases where one could easily help and yet does nothing. There is a verse:
In the evening,
If it were rain we should seek shelter,
But thinking: “It is only mist ”
We go on and become drenched.
So we go on thinking it is nothing and all unknowing pile up great sins. Unless there is repentance for sins, they cannot be extinguished by making material amends. The only way to destroy them altogether is heartfelt repentance. Not to fear committing sins is itself a terrible thing. Again, to be frightened at one’s sins, to shrink away from them and (as they think today) to escape from all one’s sins by suicide —this is most regrettable and is one kind of sin.
To the Second Patriarch Eka came a man who said: “The body of this disciple before you has been caught by disease: I beg Your Reverence to absolve me from my sins. Now in dire straits from illness, I pray you to destroy my sins for me.” Eka replied: “Bring the sins here, and I will resolve them.” After some time the man said: “I look for them but cannot find them,” and the teacher declared: “Then I have resolved them for you. Now live in accordance with the Buddha, the Law, and holy community.” The man said: “From my visit to Your Holiness I have come to know of the holy ones, but what are the Buddha and the Law?”
“This heart is the Buddha; this heart is the Law; the Law and the Buddha are not two.”
“That there is no sinful nature either within or without or in the middle—this I have learnt today,” the man said in gratitude, and the Dentoroku history tells us that from that moment the illness suddenly abated.
The inquirer must have been a man of elevated wisdom and character who had already practised the discipline for some time, and from this story we can see how in such a case the Zen training annihilates sins. It is said that by the virtue of a single session the sins are destroyed. If one’s thought comes really into an awakened state, then just as the dawn bell smashes the dream, Sansara and Nirvana both become like last night’s dream. The shadow of endlessly piled up sins vanishes, and not only that, but
The moon which rests reflected in the water of the pure heart,
When the wave breaks, becomes light!
Piled up sins are destroyed, and all becomes purified. In the chapter on non-duality in the Vimalakirti Sutra, a Bod- hisattva explains sin and happiness from the point of view of enlightenment: “Sin which is the result of passions, and happiness which is the fruit of virtue, are imagined as quite opposed to each other. But seen in the light of true wisdom,
each of them is no more than the activity of the Absolute, and we cannot speak of bondage or liberation.” If in a sitting of meditation that true wisdom can be realized, sin and happiness both are only ideas we have been dreaming.
One sometimes hears that to practise meditation it is necessary to retire to a mountain away from society, or perhaps to bury oneself in some old temple, to discard humanity and become a so-called hermit. Of course, it may be that for the final training in seeing one’s nature and attaining realization it would in some cases be necessary, for a time, but this is not the object. Zen means to bring that power by which the Zen meditation is gripped directly to bear upon our present daily life, to vivify it. Withdrawing into meditation, and then advancing and handling affairs —this advancing and withdrawing, movement and rest, together, must be Zen. A master says that going about is Zen, and sitting still also is Zen. The Taoist classic Saikondan says: “The stillness in stillness is not the real stillness; only when there is stillness in movement can the spiritual rhythm appear which pervades heaven and earth.” (Plates g and 10) An ancient adds: “Meditation in activity is a hundred, a thousand, a million times superior to meditation in repose.” So greatly does he esteem meditation in activity.
The sutra teaches that by the practice of meditation the lake of the heart becomes pure and calm, and when the lake of the ordinary man’s heart becomes pure, the reflection that appears within it is of a Bodhisattva. When the wellspring of the heart is purified, the wrong paths which otherwise appear as a result of his wrong actions, to that man become as if non-existent. How should there be wrong paths for him? The Pure Land is not far. As the phrase goes, “This heart becomes the meditation room.” The world of light, of virtue, appears, and now our daily life has a changed meaning. In fact, for the first time our ordinary life becomes radiant with real meaning.
All Japanese know of the great painter Kano Tanyu, whose work exists even today at the Myoshinji temple. This is the story of the time when he painted the great dragon on the ceiling of the main hall of the temple. It was his masterpiece and is one of the art treasures of the world. At that time the master at Myoshinji was the celebrated Zen master Gudo, famous as the teacher of the emperor. He had heard that the dragons painted by Tanyu were so realistic that when a ceiling on which one had been painted fell down by chance, some said it had been caused by the movement of the dragon’s tail. When the painting of the dragon at Myoshinji was mooted, Gudo went to the painter’s house and told him: “For this special occasion I particularly want to have the painting of the dragon done from life.” Naturally the painter was taken aback, and saying: “This is most unexpected. As a matter of fact, l am ashamed to say that I have never seen a living dragon,” would have refused the commission. The Zen teacher, however, agreed that it would be unreasonable to expect a painting of a living dragon from an artist who had never seen one, but told him to try to have a look at one as soon as he could. The painter asked wonderingly: “Where can one see a living dragon? Where do they dwell?” “Oh, that’s nothing. At my place there are any number. Come and see them and paint one.” Tanyu joyfully went with the teacher and when they arrived, at once asked: “Well, here I am to see the dragons. Where are they?” The teacher, letting his gaze go round the room, replied: “Plenty of them here; can’t you see them? What a pity!” The painter felt overcome with regret, and in the event spent the next two years with Gudo, practising Zen assiduously.
One day something happened, and he rushed excitedly to the teacher, saying: “By your grace I have today seen the form of a live dragon!” “Oh, have you? Good. But tell me, what did his roar sound like?” At this query the painter was again at a loss, and for one further year laboured on at his spiritual practices. What he painted at the end of the year was the dragon of Myoshinji, a supreme masterpiece in the history of art, remarkable for its technique but far more for the life which the artist has infused into it. It seems as if it contains the great Life which embraces heaven and earth, the universe and man also. It was to pierce through to this reality that the master painter Tanyu poured out his heart’s blood for three years. But when the one experience of reality was attained, there was no need to seek any further.
To hear a story like this is indeed wonderful, but attainment is no easy thing, and we must not allow ourselves to be discouraged. The experience of reality transcends time. The sutra says: “Heroes become Buddhas with one thought, but the lazy people are given the three collections of scriptures to traverse.”
© Trevor Leggett