An excerpt from the book Zen

The Zen way of teaching is to demonstrate Reality rather than to talk about it, or, if words are used at all, to avoid formally religious terminology and conceptual statements. When Zen speaks it expresses Reality, not with logical explanations and doctrines but with everyday conversation, or with statements that upset the normal conceptual mode of thinking so violently that they appear as utter nonsense. Because Zen desires to get rid of concepts, to shatter the rigid frames in which we try to possess life, it employs a thoroughgoing iconoclasm. At the same time, Zen as a formal religious cult reads the scriptures, uses images and ceremonies, and sometimes breaks down far enough to include sermons and explanations. But it is just the preservation of this formal aspect of religion which makes the informal and iconoclastic such a puzzling and effective contrast, a truth which Western reformers and iconoclasts have never appreciated.

The greater part of Zen literature consists of mondo, brief dialogues between masters and pupils, which illustrate its peculiar method of instruction, pointing to the real now without interposing ideas and notions about it. Here, for example, is the way in which Zen deals with the problem of non-duality, concerning which Indian Buddhism has composed so many volumes of intricate explanation.

A monk asked Dosan, “How do we escape the heat when summer comes and the cold when winter is here?”
The master said, “Why not go where there is no summer, no winter?”
“Where is such a place?”
“When the cold season comes, one is thoroughly chilled; when the hot summer is here, one swelters.”

As to escaping from Samsara, the world of opposites and everyday consciousness, to Nirvana, the realm of absolute unity and peace, Zen has this to say:
Bokuju was once asked, “We have to dress and eat every day, and how can we escape from
all that?”
The master replied, “We dress; we eat.”
“I do not understand.”
“If you do not understand, put on your dress and eat your food.”

Or again:
“Pray show me the way to deliverance.”
“Who has ever put you in bondage?”
“If so, why should you ask for deliverance?”

Another master deals with this question rather more explicitly, but we must be careful that he does not fool us:
Hui-hai was asked, “How can one attain the Great Nirvana?”
“Have no karma that works for transmigration.”
“What is the karma for transmigration?”
“To seek after the Great Nirvana, to abandon the defiled and take to the undefiled, to assert that there is something attainable and something realizable, not to be free from the teaching of opposites — this is the karma that works for transmigration.”
“How can one be emancipated?”
“No bondage from the very first, and what is the use of seeking emancipation? Act as you will, go on as you feel — without second thought. This is the incomparable way.”

Hui-hai’s final remark must not, however, give the impression that Zen is just living lazily and fatuously in the present and taking life as it comes. If this be used as a formula for grasping the reality of Zen, the whole point is missed.

A master was asked, “What is the Tao?”
“Walk on!” he shouted. Thus, whenever you think you have the right idea of Zen, drop it and walk on.

More and more we shall see that the essence of Zen is simply the giving up of any attempt to grasp life in ideational or emotional forms. It involves a thoroughgoing acceptance of life and experience just as it is at any given moment, which, whether we know it or not, is precisely what our basic, mirror-like consciousness is doing all the time. Passion, anger, elation, depression, ideas of good and evil, mine and yours — these are varying forms taken by our feelings and thoughts, whereas the essence of Mind, the essential consciousness, is ever formless, free, and pure.

“The perfect man,” said Chuang-tzu, “employs his mind as a mirror; it grasps nothing, it refuses nothing, it receives, but does not keep.”

At the same time, this must not lead us to form the concept of a pure and unchanging consciousness separate and apart from the changing forms of thoughts and things. The point is not at all to reject phenomena and cling to the Absolute, because the very nature of the Absolute, of the essential Mind, is non-clinging. As soon as we conceive a formless Self or mind-essence underlying and distinct from the changing contents of experience, we are denying the very nature of that Self. For its nature is not to separate itself from anything, not to stand apart from experience but to accept and identify itself with it.

Its very life and power consist in a perpetual self-abandonment to its varied experiences, an identification of itself with its changing forms, which in Christian language would be called the divine love. Nor must it be thought that we have to make the pure Mind perform this act of self-abandonment; it does it by itself all the time, in us and through us, whether we wish it or not.

Alan Watts
Alan Watts (January 6, 1915 - November 16, 1973) was a British-born American philosopher, writer, speaker, and counterculture hero, best known as an interpreter of Asian philosophies for a Western audience. He wrote over 25 books and numerous articles applying the teachings of Eastern and Western religion and philosophy to our everyday lives. Printed with permission from New World Library --


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