Questions and Answers about Zen

Konnichiwa Tamami-san,

I have already answered some of your questions, but I will answer some of the other ones now.  I am not affiliated with any lineage of Zen, so these answers will emerge from my humble experience, knowledge, meditations, readings, and from what I have learned from the Zen teachers themselves.  By all means speak to transmitted Zen teachers for clarifications, corrections, and explanations of these words.

Q: Would it be possible for us ordinary people to gain the enlightenment in our daily lives?

A: Yes, as is illustrated by the life of Zen Master Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. Hui Neng, who became the great Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an (Japanese Zen) was a poor illiterate peasant boy from Hsin Chou of Kwangtung. One day, after he had delivered firewood to a shop, he overheard a man reciting the following line from the “Diamond Sutra” – “Depending upon no-thing, you must find your own mind.” Instantly, Hui Neng became Enlightened. The full verse said: “All Bodhisattvas (Compassionate Ones) should develop a pure mind which clings to no-thing whatsoever; and so he should establish it.”

The man who recited this sutra encouraged Hui Neng to meet the Fifth Zen Patriarch, Hung Jen, at the Tung Chian Monastery in the Huang Mei District of Chi Chou.

Hui Neng said to the Fifth Patriarch: “I am a commoner from Hsin Chou Kwangtung (today, near Canton in the south of China). I have traveled far to pay you respect, and I ask for nothing but Buddhahood.” “You are a native of Kwangtung, a barbarian? How can you expect to be a Buddha?” asked the Patriarch. ”

Although there are northern men and southern men, north and south make no difference to their Buddha Nature. A barbarian is different from Your Holiness physically, but there is no difference in our Buddha Nature.” Master Hung Jen immediately accepted Hui Neng as his disciple, but he had to hide this fact from the very educated northern monks at the monastery.

At the time of the Fifth Patriarch, Ch’an was still influenced by Indian Buddhism, which did not emphasize direct awakening, but the importance of study and metaphysical debates. To protect Hui Neng, the Patriarch sent him to the kitchen to split firewood and pound rice for eight months. Hui Neng deepened his awakening while he did these everyday, ordinary jobs. We can do the same.

The Original Buddha Nature, awareness itself, is available to us at all times. It is the same in all sentient beings. Ordinary people can wake up to their Buddha Nature and become enlightened themselves.

Q: Are there any other monks who have attained the ultimate of the mind?

Yes, many. Here are the Six Ch’an Patriarchs, whose lives will give you some examples of this:

The following are the six Patriarchs of Chán in China as listed in traditional sources:
Bodhidharma (達摩) ca. 440 – ca. 528
Huike (慧可) 487–593
Sengcan (僧燦) ?–606
Daoxin (道信) 580–651
Hongren (弘忍) 601–674
Huineng (慧能) 638–713

Q: How are we able to recognize the enlightenment?

The Buddha said that a Buddha is one in whom personal suffering has come to an end. Suffering comes to an end by cutting off its causes. Its causes are three: (1) clinging (to people, to ideas, to things… suffering is caused when these impermanent things change or are lost), (2) aversion (hatred, dislikes, annoyance, etc…. moments where the mind “pushes reality away”), and (3) ignorance, not knowing the way things are. To be a Buddha, Shakyamuni taught, we must cut off the causes of suffering, these Three Poisons.

But the Zen way is a more direct way. We become awakened, according to Bodhidharma and the other Zen Masters, by realizing our Original and True Nature. This realization is the realization that our fundamental nature is the same as a Buddha. Zen Masters have expressed this in different ways: “Awareness is Buddha,” “Buddha is ordinary mind,” etc., etc. I like to use the word awareness. Awareness is our Buddha Nature. What is awareness? It is this awake space in which the universe and your own body and thoughts appear.

While your body-mind is in constant flux, awareness is always the same, Unborn and Undying. In awareness itself, that which is aware of the universe and of other beings, there are none of the Three Poisons. There is no clinging and no aversion; awareness becomes everything that arises within it. A tree comes, and your awareness appears as a tree; your friend comes, and awareness appears as your friend; a Buddha statue comes and awareness appears as a Buddha statue. Formless, it takes all forms. Awareness also has no ignorance; in fact, it is only through awareness that all things are known.

Your body-mind exists only in interdependent relationships on other things. It is conditional and changing, but awareness, your Buddha Nature, is stable and unchanging. It was the same as when you were a baby and as it is today. It was your Original Face before your ancestors were born.

Living enlightenment, according to Zen master Dogen, means taking this insight into our True Nature into everyday life. This means, making your mind sink into awareness so that it takes on the qualities of awareness. When you are focused on awareness, there is no attachment, aversion, or ignorant ideas; your mind is clear. This is Zen mind, awake mind, Buddha mind. Just seeing clearly, “just like this” as Zen Master Seung Sahn liked to say.

You can recognize enlightenment when you see a knowledge of the insight into Buddha Nature that is obtained, not by studying or thinking, but by directly looking into awareness for yourself. Tasting the true experience of awareness itself. This is called, in Zen, seeing the Moon rather than seeing the finger pointing at the Moon.

An enlightened life is a life lived firmly planted in awareness of your Buddha Nature and expressed in virtues of (1) wisdom, (2) compassion, (3) equanimity, (4) mindfulness, and (5) peacefulness. A clarity of mind and a life of these qualities will show you enlightenment. To the unenlightened mind, everything is dual and opposites. To the enlightened mind, things appear distinct, but they are all One in their being. You see that there is no separate self (anatta) and at the same time, you see that all is your Self. The suffering of other beings is your own suffering, so compassion arises. You care for them as yourself.

Q: The Unfettered Mind, which is translated by William Scott Wilson. Have you ever read this book?

A: No, I haven’t read it, but it seems interesting. It was written by a Zen Master for a master of sworsmanship. It applies Zen philosophy to Martial arts.

Q: Could you please tell me what book you are impressed with in regard to the enlightenment?

A: First of all, I must give you the Zen answer: Zen is a “transmission outside of the Scriptures,” it cannot be found in books. Reality must be experienced for itself. With that said, some books have been helpful along the way. Douglas Harding wrote some interesting books such as Face to No-Face, which are helpful and direct. Seung Sahn’s Dropping Ashes on the Buddha is fascinating. Hui Neng wrote a Platform Sutra, which is quite powerful. There are also the records of the teachings of Zen Master Bankei, which you might find interesting. He taught in a simple style to directly look into your Unborn Buddha Nature (pure awareness itself), which I discussed above. Your might also want to consider the teachings of some non-Zen mystics, Papaji, Mooji, and Ramana Maharshi, who have helpful things to say and very direct teachings on the path.

Take care, Tamami-san. I hope you find these answers helpful,


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