Zen is…

“A special transmission outside the scriptures,
not founded upon words and letters.
by pointing directly to one’s mind,
It lets one see into one’s own true nature
and thus attain buddhahood.” (1) 

The above statement from Bodhidharma is an interesting one. It alludes to what most people believe is the fundamental essence of Zen.

That Zen cuts through the intellectual, conceptualizing, thinking mind to show us our true potential.

That this potential, most often referred to as Buddha Nature is inherent within us. And that thinking about or reading Dharma books and scripture will not lead us to discover this potential that’s hiding in plain sight

But most of us at one time or another have probably experienced a moment of insight that came from reading written words on a page (be it in book form or electronic).

I remember the first time I read the following two stanzas:

The body is like a bodhi tree
the mind a mirror bright
at all times wipe it clean
and let no dust alight.
~ Shen-hsiu

There is no Bodhi tree
Nor a mirror bright
Buddha Nature is empty and clean
so where can dust alight?
~ Hui-neng (2)

My whole world stopped for me, or really I should say that my mind stopped and “I” disappeared.

This experience happened because of words, words written on paper.

Was this a sudden awakening? Or was this because of gradual cultivation?

And this experience presents us with a conundrum…

Can we gain true insight from words and speech?

Master So Sahn in the introduction to The Mirror of Zen said that, “Although I am truly lacking in ability, I have cherished the old writings, and consider the sacred writings from the great sutras to be my greatest treasures.” (3)

And even about his own book he says, “If you consider this book your guide and pursue its truths to the end in order to attain the mysterious dharma, you will see a living Buddha sprouting out of each and every phrase, Therefore you should contemplate this book by all means.

So what can we make of this?

Should we listen to Bodhdharma and believe him when he says that Zen is, “a special transmission outside the scriptures, not founded upon words and letters.” or are we to believe what Master So Sahn says that we can find “a living Buddha sprouting out of each and every phrase.”?

It’s a conundrum…

Words can point the way, they can give us a glimpse of our potential, they can lead us to profound discoveries, but can they ultimately help us fully crossover?

Master So Sahn and all the great masters seem to say “No” that words and study cannot fully help us to realize our ultimate, original Buddha Nature.

At the end of the introduction of The Mirror of Zen, Master So Sahn says that we can study words and phrases but, “…it would be far better to attain that single word that is beyond all writings.

Words can be helpful and inspire us – even transform the way we act, speak and think. Words can be a raft of sorts that can help to carry us a bit of the way to realization-awakening but as Chinul the great Koren Zen Master has mentioned that words and study can be helpful but only by giving us an understanding-awakening not full realization-awakening. (4)

Master Chinul should know – he was an avid scholar and primarily practiced in solitude using the sutras to help him on his journey of awakening.

Understanding-Awakening can inspire us, point us in the right direction, give us a new perspective then Realization-Awakening can bloom. Realization-Awakening is a fully embodied realization of truth.

Master So Sahn says that, “The Dharma has two aspects: it never changes, and yet it also follows conditions, cause and effect.

He believes that there are two aspects to people as well, “People also have two kinds of capacity: they have the ability to awaken in an instant, while there is the constant need to refine themselves through gradual practices as well.

And because of these two aspects, “…it is necessary to adopt different kinds of skillful means employing words and speech.

Skillful means – that’s an interesting way to look at it.

That because of individuals various levels of readiness some may be able to awaken by simply seeing a flower like Mahakasyapa the Buddha’s successor and some may need many lifetimes of mirror wiping.

But the potential for full awakening is always there – waiting for us to discover it.

For some it may come quickly and for others it may take a little while.

What we must be aware of is the difference between realizing the Dharma and merely understanding it intellectually.

We can read about chocolate, study chocolate, even make chocolate but ultimately we need to taste the chocolate to realize it completely. So too is it with discovering our own inherent Buddha Nature.

Words and study can point us in the direction of it, give us glimpses of it, we get the scent of it, faints wisps of it on the breeze but we haven’t fully experienced it completely.

We must go beyond thought constructs, beyond the thinking mind. As long as we are dependent on words we will never fully be able to cross-over.

Works Cited
(1) Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice by Master Thich Thien-An
(2) The Platform Sutra by Master Hui-Neng (this is a poetic translation done by me)
(3) The Mirror of Zen by Master So Sahn
(4) Pojo Chinul and the Sudden-Gradual Issue by Robert E. Buswell Jr.