Zen and the Ways

Zen masters are not keen on verbal definitions of Buddha-nature, because they are at once converted by a hearer into mental constructs like the other mental constructs which constitute his world. As such they are on an illusory basis and become obstructions to actual Buddha- realization. However, something is said of Buddha-nature in expression:

Buddha-without- Monju (wisdom) holding a sword (power)

  1. mental-constructs (2) (3)

= Void Fugen {compassion) holding a lotus (beauty)

Wisdom and compassion are mental constructs of the highest clarity and serenity, through which as through a very fine veil the Void is seen and expressed. When the last veil is removed there is nothing to be said or thought, for there are no mental constructs with which to think or speak. See the story ‘Painting the Nature’, on p. 107. This point comes again and again in Zen.

(1) The phrase ‘no mental constructs’ can be bewildering or terrifying. Some people believe it would be unconsciousness, because they think that consciousness is the same as thought, which is only a movement in it. In their view, consciousness has degrees. The Soto Zen phrase ‘consciously enter deep sleep and be aware of it’ would be as meaningless as ‘take a light into a dark room and see what the darkness looks like’. Almost nothing is known in the Western tradition about deep sleep, but the East has experimented for many centuries. Westerners might consider the many authenticated instances of inspirations in the scientific field which flashed into the mind immediately on waking. Helmholtz was a case in point.

Zen masters often use the word ‘Buddha’ in an absolute sense, though when they really mean business, they are more likely to use negative expressions.

  1. Is the realm of Buddhist expression, especially in poetry and art.
  2. Is the realm of everyday action. It was a special contribution of Japanese Zen to see and be able to express Buddha-nature through power and beauty in everyday things. They partially spiritualized the soldier tradition and brought inspiration into household concerns like flower-arrangement and making tea. These were called Ways.

There are many people who have no wish to transcend individuality and enter a realm beyond mental constructs, a region of transcendental aloneness. But some of them would like to experience some inspiration, to be able to enter into harmony with the universe, not simply on great occasions but at ordinary times. It is for such people that the Ways were developed. They are fragmentary manifestations of Zen which depend only minimally on circumstances; to practise them means to be able to experience a breath from beyond, to have freedom for a time at least from the drabness and cramp of life, and to become able to recognize in a particular field the cosmic life, and give it play.

The Ways have techniques, but it is not their purpose to imitate the action of cosmic life by technical means, like a pupil faithfully copying the style of his master in the absence of any inspiration of his own. The point of the techniques is to master one field thoroughly, so that the instruments of perception are able to perceive very accurately. It is then that the action of cosmic life becomes clear. Unless the eye has been trained, it is not so easy to determine what is an excellent rock garden and what is a mediocre one. Those who have not been trained in this Way or any other, will not easily be able to judge. But if an untrained man is in a badly designed garden day after day, he finds that there is a vague discomfort, a kind of physical unease, as though something needs altering but he cannot find out what ft is. And in a good garden, he will find that without his particularly noticing it, there has been a calming influence on his mind; he is somehow at peace, though he does not know where the peace comes from. A trained man appreciates the garden at once, not by mental analysis, though he can do that too if it is needed. He is trained in balances and relations which cannot be specified in words. He can appreciate what is ‘speaking’ through a masterpiece, and to some extent express it through his own creations.

When he begins to be able to recognize it through gardens, he may go on to recognize it elsewhere$ things which he has seen every day with a jaded eye suddenly become fresh and alive. Westerners are sometimes surprised to find shops in Japan selling nothing but rocks, large and small, some of them at high prices. It can take quite a time before they can look at these rocks and really see them. Before that, there has been an internal notice ‘Stones – of no value or interest.’ That notice has to be dismantled before they can look.



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