Zen for Americans, by Soyen Shaku, , at sacred-texts.com
HUNG JEN, the fifth patriarch of the Dhyâna sect in China, who died in 675 A.D., had many disciples. One day he made an announcement to them, saying that whoever was capable of giving a satisfactory proof of his thorough comprehension of Buddhism would succeed him in religious authority. And its outcome was the following two stanzas, the first by one of his most learned disciples and the second by his humble rice-pounder, who, however, was awarded the prize and came to be known later as the sixth patriarch.
"No holy tree exists as Bodhi known,
No mirror shining bright is standing here;
Since there is nothing from the very first,
Where can the dust itself accumulate?"
* * *
The thesis I am going to expound this evening is that these two views of Buddhism must be reconciled and harmonized in order to walk on the middle path of truth. But before doing so go
let me acquaint you with the story of the blind men and the elephant.
There was once a powerful king in India, who called all his blind retainers together to his court, and then brought out one of his largest elephants before them, asking what they thought of it. Being born blind, of course they had never seen an elephant, and now in obedience to the royal command they all came around the animal. Each of them touched only a certain portion of the huge body and came to the hasty conclusion that the portion he handled was really the entirety of the beast.
Those that touched the tail thought the elephant was like a broom; those that touched the leg thought it resembled a huge column; those that touched the back imagined the elephant had a body with the shape of a gigantic drum; those that handled the ear thought it reminded them of the wing of a bird; those that touched the tusk thought it had the shape of a flail. Though thus none of them could describe the complete and exact figure of the elephant, each was narrow-minded enough to insist on the verity of his testimony. The king was very much amused to see how utterly they failed to comprehend the object and how fruitless their quarreling was.
Even so, says the Buddha, is the way most of us look at the truth and quarrel over it. Buddhists may think that Buddhism is the whole
truth and that all other religions are nothing but superstition and prejudice; while Christians will imagine that their religion is the only thing in the world, that they are monopolizing the divine grace, and that therefore all other teachings are impostures and idolatries and heathenisms. The adherents of Mohammedanism may also be convinced of their absolute possession of God; and so with all the other religious systems of the world. Indeed, every religion is disposed to consider that it alone and no one else holds the key to Heaven and eternal life; and on account of this conviction religionists are ever ready to denounce each other with bitterness hardly worthy of their profession and dignity. But to get at the real truth of things we must shake off all these prejudices and endeavor to comprehend the truth as a whole and be always humble and broad-minded and tolerant.
Now to return to the subject. These two stanzas recited at the beginning are suited, I believe, to illustrate in a way my point just made; that is, to obtain a comprehensive view of truth it is not enough to know only one side of the shield, but we must turn it around and see the reverse, as one is complementary to the other. judging superficially, the two stanzas appear to be directly contradicting each other, for while one advocates the strenuous life the other seems to be tending to nihilism and libertinism.
[paragraph continues] In my opinion, however, Buddhism would be incomprehensible if these two apparently antagonizing views were not synthesized and harmoniously blended. To take hold of only one of these and to think that it comprises the whole of Buddhism will be committing the same error as the blind men in the story of the elephant.
Those two stanzas are the two wings of a bird, or the two wheels of a cart, or, perhaps more exactly, one is like the eye and the other the legs. With the eye we can see, but we cannot move, as we have no legs; with the legs we are able to move, but we are blind, as we are without sight. From the standpoint of absolute truth, there is no such thing as mind or matter or even God or universe. But if we confine ourselves to this view and become blind to the other side, which says that the many exists, that the world actually is, we are like the man who has no legs; we are unable to move, we cannot carry ourselves, we are helpless, we cannot live our daily life. Philosophical insight may be far-reaching enough, but it is contentless, it lacks the material on which to work. Therefore, we must look at the other side and see how our practical life is to be regulated; we must see how our legs are fixed, whether they are strong enough to take us where the eye is directing.
Again, we must not forget that practical discipline alone does not lead us to the abode of final enlightenment. It is very excellent not to
neglect the cleaning of the mirror, the purifying of the mind, which is likely all the time to collect the dust of passion on it. But if we fail to see that a merely conventional, superficial purification is very much like groping in the dark without the knowledge of the import of existence, our spiritual horizon will draw itself within narrow limits like a snail retiring within the shell, and we may lose our original, intrinsic, spontaneous freedom and tranquillity, which belong to the mind by its own constitution; we may put ourselves under an unnecessary yoke, moving only within a prescribed circle. In other words, we may lose simplicity, naturalness, ease of movement in all our thinkings and doings.
In what follows I will consider the teaching of Buddhism as stated in those two stanzas harmoniously viewed.
The first stanza begins with the line, "The body is the holy Bodhi tree." In this, our body is compared to the sacredness of the Bodhi tree under which the founder of Buddhism attained his spiritual enlightenment and laid down the foundation of his system. The body, however evanescent in its character, must be considered holy even as the holy tree, and all the necessary care should be taken to keep it the worthy vessel in which the spirit is lodged. There are many fanatic believers in asceticism and self-mortification, thinking that this material existence is the root of evil and therefore the more is it tortured
the purer and holier will grow the spirit. The flesh is in its very nature antagonistic to the spirit. They cannot thrive in harmonious relation with each other. The stronger the flesh the weaker the spirit, and vice versa. The line, "The body is the holy Bodhi tree," is directed against those who hold this kind of view. That is to say, Buddhism does not espouse any ascetic practice, nor does it hold a doctrine tending to a dualistic conception of existence which makes the flesh the source of evil and the spirit. the foundation of everything good. The body as a material phenomenon has its limitations, as a living organism has its impulses, desires, passions, and moods; and there is nothing evil or wicked in it. It is thirsty and it must drink; it is hungry and it must be fed. Exposure in cold affects its well-being and it must be clothed. Too much strenuosity exhausts its energy and it must rest. All these things are inherent in it, and unless we demand that the tree grow as the fish, as a Japanese saying goes, it is altogether irrational to wish our bodily existence to be free from all its constitutional wants. Therefore, Buddhism teaches us not to curb them and torture the body, but to regulate them and prevent their going to self-destruction through wantonness.
The second line reads, "The mind is like a mirror shining bright." This may suggest, when contrasted with the first line, a dualistic conception
of our existence, making mind independent of body. But I am not going to enter into this complicated problem,--the problem of mind and body, whether they are one or separate. For convenience' sake, I take the mind as the subjective aspect of the body and the body as the objective aspect of the mind. To speak more popularly, the mind is the inner side of the body and the body the outer case of the mind. They both make up one solid reality. Within, it is felt as consciousness; without, it is perceived as body. Now, this body is sacred as the Bodhi tree, and every care has to be taken for its well-being. So with the mind: it must be kept perfectly free from the dirty particles of passion, it must be made to retain its original purity through moral discipline.
The mind as it first came from the hands of God was pure, simple, illuminating as the mirror. But in its constant contact with the world of sense, it has become liable to be carried away by its impressions and impulses without ever reminding itself of its original immaculacy. What comes from outside does not, of course, defile the mind, but when the latter loses its own control and gives way to sensuality, the dust begins to accumulate on it. When its transparency is thus gone, the mind becomes a plaything of all chance impulses and haphazard impressions, like a river-ark drifting in the ocean and being tossed up and down by the capricious
waves. Buddhism calls such a one ignorant and wanting in the Bodhi (wisdom). It therefore admonishes us to reflect within ourselves constantly and not to give a free rein to the sensual, selfish, unenlightened passions. The reason why Buddhism has so many moral precepts and monastic rules to regulate the lives of lay disciples and monks will now be understood. They are all intended for the purification of the mind and the regulation of bodily desires. They are all meant to ward off the evil influences that disturb serenity of mind and simplicity of heart, in order that our divine nature residing within us may fulfil its own significance and be free in its own operations. Buddhism does not desire to impede in any way our rational activities on account of those moral regulations, but simply to check the progress of evil desires, selfish impulses, and unenlightened motives.
So far we have dealt with the ethical and practical phase of Buddhism as enunciated in the first stanza. Now we must go round and see what is the other side of Buddhism, which constitutes the philosophical foundation of the system. It is not enough for us, it is not worthy of the name of a human being, merely to live and not to endeavor to unravel the mysteries of life. As a rational, conscious being, we must look into the reason of things, we must know the why of existence. To live even as a saint is not quite gratifying to the intellectual cravings of
the human mind. Of course, every religion must find its culmination in our practical life and not in our abstract speculation. Yet we must seek a philosophical basis of conduct. And Buddhism finds this in the second stanza cited at the beginning of this discourse.
At the first blush the gâthâ seems to smack not a little of nihilism, as it apparently denies the existence of individuality. But those who stop short at this negative interpretation of it are not likely to grasp the deep signification of Buddhism. For Buddhism teaches in this gâthâ the existence of the highest reality that transcends the duality of body and mind as well as the limitations of time and space. Though this highest reality is the source of life, the ultimate reason of existence, and the norm of things multifarious and multitudinous, it has nothing particular in it, it cannot be designated by any determinative terms, it refuses to be expressed in the phraseology we use in our common parlance. Why? For it is an absolute unity, and there is nothing individual, particular, dualistic, and conditional. It is a great mistake, an intellectual weakness, to suppose that there is such a thing as a personal God or an immortal soul which stands like a mirror bright and shining and which is susceptible of contamination or corruption. For practical purposes we may provisionally admit the existence of an entity which some people call God and which is independent of this
world; we may again admit the existence of the soul which is the master of this material phenomenon called body. But to understand these things as actually existing as our short-sighted intellect conceives them will be a fatal mistake.
We must first directly comprehend the spiritual reason of things, and then let us with this insight look upon things that are about us. It would be madness to deny the reality of the phenomenal world, but in the midst of these realities the enlightened see their non-reality. There towers a huge mountain, here lies a boundless ocean, birds are singing, trees are growing, and I sit here looking over the verdant meadow; yet, in spite of all these, nay, indeed by reason of these, I believe in the nothingness of existence, in the non-reality of realities, and in the absolute oneness of all things; and it is thereby that I gain my peace of mind and realize the sense of perfect freedom in my everyday life.
All those moral laws and religious regulations which I at first found unreasonably fettering my free activity are now blessings, for I am no more than those laws and rules themselves. I have become master of them. I am the maker of all those moral laws, and my existence consists in the execution of them. I say this, my dear Christian audience, and then ask you, "Does your God feel himself hampered in his activity when he has so many laws of nature to observe? Does he, for instance, complain of the law of
gravity when he wants an apple to drop on the ground?" Is he not perfectly free in following the laws of nature? and are we not made in his image? I see, then, no obstacles, no hampering, no discordant jarring in my following the laws of my being. And hereby we go back to the first stanza of moral discipline. We find now the middle course of truth, a complete harmonization of rigorism and naturalism, as the principles advocated by those two stanzas may respectively be so termed.
At first we had a feeling of compulsion and restraint, but now at the mastery of the second stanza we have philosophical intuition and feel perfectly at ease. We move as we will, yet we do not transgress. Our conduct, when our spiritual enlightenment reaches this stage, is in complete accord with the reason of heaven and earth, for we are now identified with it. From the start our religious discipline has been to attain this ease, this freedom, this simplicity, this spirituality, and we have at last reached the goal and are at rest. The bird has acquired two strong wings, the cart is supplied with a pair of running wheels, and we have the eyes that see and the legs that walk. There is nothing now in this life that will possibly cause vexation of spirit or the gnashing of teeth and the palpitation of heart.