Reading the Words of the Zen Masters

Karl Jaspers once said that he “discovered that the study of past philosophers is of little use unless our own reality enters into it. our reality alone allows the thinker’s questions to become comprehensible.”

The same is true for the words of great religious teachers and sages.

I find that if we read the words of the Zen masters without using our own experience as the interpretive frame of reference through which we read them, then we miss their point.

They teach us not to confuse the moon with the finger pointing to it; when we read their words as abstract ideas and not as concrete pointers directing us to our own essential nature, we do precisely this.

Here’s a good example: “Seeing into one’s self-nature is seeing into nothingness. Seeing into nothingness is true seeing and eternal seeing.” — Shen-hui.

Looking into our own self-nature is looking into what we truly are; to do this, we must attend to the clear field of awareness out of which we are looking, in which this computer and this scene before us appears. Attending to this, we find it perfectly empty in itself; in this sense, it is not thing, but no-thing, and its nature is nothingness.

Look right now where others see your face; the center of your experience, this clear space in which this moment appears. This pristine clarity has been the same since you were a baby and will be the same when you are as an old man; for this reason, seeing this is eternal seeing.

It is also true seeing because this clear, aware, Capacity is that through which all is known, the foundation of knowing and truth.

Without relating this to our concrete experience, we would totally miss the point of Shen Hui’s words. But reading them while seeing for ourselves, we taste their true nectar.


We might also put this into Buberian terms; when we merely approach the words of the Zen masters as abstract concepts, we do not enter into a true I-Thou relationship with them. We merely relate to them as objects of knowledge in an I-It relation. However, when the experiences of the Zen masters and our own experiences meet, we have true relationship, an I-Though meeting, and then are we really living, for as Buber said, “all real living is meeting.”


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