"Zen Masters" (excerpt) THE WISDOM OF THE ZEN MASTERS — Irmgard Schloegl

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Picture by Roman Trottner


THE WISDOM OF THE ZEN MASTERS (excerpt) by Irmgard Schloegl

When the succession after the Fifth Patriarch was under consideration, his main disciple Jinshu was generally expected to be the heir. To present his insight, he composed a verse:

The body is the Tree of Awakening,
The heart is a bright mirror;
Carefully wipe it always So that no dust can settle.

Eno (Hui Neng), who in fact became the Sixth Patriarch, countered with another verse:

There is no Tree of Awakening;
The bright mirror has no stand;
When all is emptiness Where can dust settle?

The teaching analogies of the Zen school are finely balanced, and these two verses reflect each other like two mirrors. They make a point that is as important now as it was then: one cannot have the one without the other; the chicken comes out of the egg; without the egg, no chicken.

Many of the Zen Masters are claimed as fathers or founders of special teaching lines, stressing a particular way or style. Their teachings and biographies were written down by their disciples. They themselves wrote nothing; they taught. What they taught was not scriptural learning, not Buddhism or Zen, but a way of life. Familiarity with the scriptures is basic to all Buddhist monks. The Zen Masters made use of the scriptures and quoted them freely, though often with a comment that brought new light on what had become too familiar. They tried to break down blind piety towards the teachings, and to help their students to a real insight, to that clear seeing as a result of which the scriptures assumed a new and living meaning —not something abstract ‘up there’ to be quoted, but functioning here and now in one’s own life and in all that is, ‘clearly perceptible right before the eyes’.

The Zen Masters were men of few words, but mature in insight and skilled in means. They were also past masters in rousing their students out of complacency and in spotting imitative behavior. They could be fierce to an extent that to us seems appalling, though never without purpose, but balanced by a ‘grandmotherly kindness’ which seems to have been a greater danger than their fierceness, for we often find warnings in the texts against spoon-feeding.

A man who wants to stand squarely on his own feet and to get his sight clear needs courage to see into his emotional household and to disentangle himself to some extent from it. Such a man in the fullness of time needs to come to a genuine breaking point at which ‘I’, fired by passion, abdicates. This is what Master Hakuin called the Great Death, and that this is a shattering experience is obvious.

To help to bring about this turning over, to assist what is in itself a natural process as a kind of midwife, is another of the functions of a Zen Master. The Zen analogy for it is a hen hatching out an egg. When the chicken is ready, the hen must peck the shell to help the chick out. If this is done too early or too late, the chick dies. Hence derives the very real responsibility assumed by a Zen Master, of which he is humbly conscious. The relationship is a serious contract, binding on both parties.

Every inner experience has a convincing, even overpowering finality. The little ones in particular are inevitably followed by 1 have got if, an I-appropriation. T wants to hold it, which is impossible. Then T strives to get it back, which is equally impossible for T has no say in the matter. The wanting and striving to bring it back is misdirected effort, is clinging to a passing phenomenon, and so only strengthens the sense of T. This is contrary to the Way, and so the Way is lost.

Hence one more function of a Zen Master is to prevent students from becoming stuck in any experience and thus losing the Way. He goads them on in their training till sooner or later they die the Great Death, and come to that true humility which is the joy of the heart, releasing its inherent warmth which now can flow and act freely. When the trammels of egoism are gone, its blinkers shed, what remains and is seen is what is.

A monk brought two potted plants to his Master. ‘Drop it,’ ordered the Master. The monk dropped one pot. ‘Drop it,’ again ordered the Master. The monk let the second pot go. ‘Drop it,’ now roared the Master. The monk stammered: ‘But I have nothing more to drop.’ ‘Then take it away/ nodded the Master.

The simplicity of such an analogy must not blind us to the veritable impossibility of doing just this. And yet it has to be done. Hence the importance of training.

Even dropping what we have, all we have, is not an easy thing. But dropping what has us, our ingrained opinions, views, ideals, our dear burdens that we so hotly and volubly defend—we cannot drop them by an act of will. It is just that which is the rub. W e never even dare to look at them squarely, much less to doubt their validity.

The Zen Masters hold that three things are necessary for this training: a great root of faith, great doubt, and great courage-endurance. The death of T is no easy matter. Moreover, it needs preparation so that the dying can happen cleanly.

A knight in medieval Japan deserted his liege lord after long inner struggles, for such an action was inconceivable according to the code of knighthood. He did it because he felt an overwhelming vocation for the Zen life. Having spent some twelve years in one of the mountain monasteries, he set out on pilgrimage. Before long he encountered a knight on horseback who recognized him and made to strike him down but then decided against it as he was unwilling to sully his sword. So he just spat in the monk’s face as he rode by. In the act of wiping away the spittle, the monk realized in a flash what in former days his reaction would have been to such an insult. Deeply moved, he turned round towards the mountain area where he had done his training, bowed, and composed a poem:

The mountain is the mountain And the Way is the same as of old.
Verily what has changed Is my own heart.

Such is the Way of Zen. Who could exhaust it? The guides on that Way are the Zen Masters. It is a Way that can be walked now as then. The guides are there still. They do not propagate either themselves or their teachings. They sit and train themselves, and those who come to them prepared for such training, able to bow at least the head and capable of giving up cherished views. ‘The Great Way is not difficult, it only avoids cherishing opinions’ on questions such as what is Truth, the Absolute, or other great words.

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