PREFACE TO ZEN
Lao Tzu, Buddha, Confucius
Some call it "seeing," some call it "knowing," and some describe it in religious terms. Whatever the name, it is our reach for a new level of consciousness. Of the many forms this search has taken, perhaps the most intriguing is Zen. Growing out of the wisdom of China, India, and Japan, Zen became a powerful movement to explore the lesser-known reaches of the human mind. Today Zen has come westward, where we are rediscovering modern significance in its ancient insights. This book is an attempt to encounter Zen in its purest form, by returning to the greatest Zen masters.
Zen teachings often appear deceptively simple. This misconception is compounded by the Zen claim that explanations are meaningless. They are, of course, but merely because genuine Zen insights can arise only from individual experience. And although our experience can be described and even analyzed, it cannot be transmitted or shared. At most, the "teachings" of Zen can only clear the way to our deeper consciousness. The rest is up to us.
Zen is based on the recognition of two incompatible types of thought: rational and intuitive. Rationality employs language, logic, reason. Its precepts can be taught. Intuitive knowledge, however, is different. It lurks embedded in our consciousness, beyond words. Unlike rational thought, intuition cannot be "taught" or even turned on. In fact, it is impossible to find or manipulate this intuitive consciousness using our rational mind—any more than we can grasp our own hand or see our own eye.
The Zen masters devised ways to reach this repressed area of human consciousness. Some of their techniques—like meditation—were borrowed from Indian Buddhism, and some—like their antirational paradoxes—may have been learned from Chinese Taoists. But other inventions, like their jarring shouts and blows, emerged from their own experience. Throughout it all, however, their words and actions were only a means, never an end.
That end is an intuitive realization of a single great insight—that we and the world around are one, both part of a larger encompassing absolute. Our rational intellect merely obscures this truth, and consequently we must shut it off, if only for a moment. Rationality constrains our mind; intuition releases it.
The irony is that the person glimpsing this moment of higher consciousness, this Oneness, encounters the ultimate realization that there is nothing to realize. The world is still there, unchanged. But the difference is that it is now an extension of our consciousness, seen directly and not analytically. And since it is redundant to be attached to something already a part of you, there is a sudden sense of freedom from our agonizing bondage to things.
Along with this also comes release from the constraints of artificial values. Creating systems and categories is not unlike counting the colors of a rainbow—both merely detract from our experience of reality, while at the same time limiting our appreciation of the world's richness. And to declare something right or wrong is similarly nearsighted. As Alan Watts once observed, "Zen unveils behind the urgent realm of good and evil a vast region of oneself about which there need be no guilt or recrimination, where at last the self is indistinguishable from God." And, we might add, where God is also one with our consciousness, our self. In Zen all dualities dissolve, absorbed in the larger reality that simply is.
None of these things is taught explicitly in Zen. Instead they are discovered waiting in our consciousness after all else has been swept away. A scornful twelfth-century Chinese scholar sum¬marized the Zen method as follows: "Since the Zen masters never run the risk of explaining anything in plain language, their followers must do their own pondering and puzzling—from which a real threshing-out results." In these pages we will watch the threshing-out of Zen itself—as its masters unfold a new realm of consciousness, the Zen experience.
TAOISM: THE WAY TO ZEN
Taoism is the original religion of ancient China. It is founded on the idea that a fundamental principle, the Tao, underlies all nature. Long before the appearance of Zen, Taoists were teaching the superiority of intuitive thought, using an anti-intellectualism that often ridiculed the logic-bound limitations of conventional Chinese life and letters. However, Taoism was always upbeat and positive in its acceptance of reality, a quality that also rubbed off on Zen over the centuries. Furthermore, many Taoist philosophers left writings whose world view seems almost Zen-like. The early Chinese teachers of meditation (called dhyana in Sanskrit and Ch'an in Chinese) absorbed the Taoist tradition of intuitive wisdom, and later Zen masters often used Taoist expressions. It is fitting, therefore, that we briefly meet some of the most famous teachers of Chinese Taoism.
One of the most influential figures in ancient Chinese lore is remembered today merely as Lao Tzu (Venerable Master). Taoist legends report he once disputed (and bettered) the scholarly Confucius, but that he finally despaired of the world and rode an oxcart off into the west, pausing at the Han-ku Pass—on the insistence of its keeper—to set down his insights in a five-thousand-character poem. This work, the Tao Te Ching (The Way and the Power), was an eloquent, organized, and lyrical statement of an important point of view in China of the sixth century B.C., an understanding later to become an essential element of Ch'an Buddhism.
The word "Tao" means many, many things—including the elan vital or life force of the universe, the harmonious structuring of human affairs, and—perhaps most important—a reality transcend¬ing words. Taoists declared there is a knowledge not accessible by language. As the Tao Te Ching announces in its opening line, "The Tao that can be put into words is not the real Tao."
Also fundamental to the Tao is the unity of mind and matter, of the one who knows and the thing known. The understanding of a truth and the truth itself cannot be separated. The Tao includes and unifies these into a larger "reality" encompassing both. The notion that our knowledge is distinguishable from that known is an illusion.
Another teaching of the Tao Te Ching is that intuitive insight surpasses rational analysis. When we act on our spontaneous judgment, we are almost always better off. Chapter 19 declares, "Let the people be free from discernment and relinquish intellection . . . Hold to one's original nature . . . Eliminate artificial learning and one will be free from anxieties."1 The wise defer to a realm of insight floating in our mind beyond its conscious state.
Taoists also questioned the value of social organization, holding that the best government is the one governing least and that "the wise deal with things through non-interference and teach through no-words."2 Taoists typically refused to draw value judgments on others' behavior. Lao Tzu asks, "What is the difference between good and bad?"3 and concludes, "Goodness often turns out to be evil."4 There is complete acceptance of what is, with no desire to make things "better." Lao Tzu believed "good" and "bad" were both part of Tao and therefore, "Even if a man is unworthy, Tao will never exclude him."5 If all things are one, there can be no critical differentiation of any part. This concentration on inner perception, to the exclusion of practical concerns, evoked a criticism from the third-century-B.C. Confucian philosopher Hsun Tzu that has a curiously modern ring of social consciousness. "Lao Tzu under¬stood looking inward, but knew nothing of looking outward. . . . If there is merely inward-looking and never outward-looking, there can be no distinction between what has value and what has not, between what is precious and what is vile, between what is noble and what is vulgar."6 But the refusal of Lao Tzu to intellectualize what is natural or to sit in judgment over the world was the perfect Chinese precedent for Ch'an.
The second important figure in Taoism is the almost equally legendary teacher remembered as Chuang Tzu, who is usually placed in the fourth century B.C., some two centuries after Lao Tzu. An early historian tells that once Chuang Tzu was invited to the court to serve as a minister, an invitation he declined with a typical story: An ox is selected for a festival and fattened up for several years, living the life of wealth and indulgence—until the day he is led away for sacrifice. At that reckoning what would he give to return to the simple life, where there was poverty but also freedom?
In Chuang Tzu's own book of wisdom, he also derided the faith in rationality common to Chinese scholars. To emphasize his point he devised a vehicle for assaulting the apparatus of logic—that being a "nonsense" story whose point could only be understood intui-tively., There has yet to be found a more deadly weapon against pompous intellectualizing, as the Ch'an Buddhists later proved with the koan. Chuang Tzu also knew how quickly comedy could deflate, and he used it with consummate skill, again paving the way for the absurdist Zen masters. In fact, his dialogues often anticipate the Zen mondo, the exchanges between master and pupil that have comic/straight-man overtones.
In this regard, Chuang Tzu also sometimes anticipates twentieth-century writers for the Theater of the Absurd, such as Beckett or Ionesco. Significantly, the Columbia scholar Burton Watson suggests that the most fruitful path to Chuang Tzu "is not to attempt to subject his thoughts to rational and systematic analysis, but to read and reread his words until one has ceased to think of what he is saying and instead has developed an intuitive sense of the mind moving beyond the words, and of the world in which it moves."7 This is undoubtedly true. The effect of comic parody on logic is so telling that the only way to really understand the message is to stop trying to "understand" it.
Concerning the limitations of verbal transmission, Chuang Tzu tells a story of a wheelmaker who once advised his duke that the book of ancient thought the man was reading was "nothing but the lees and scum of bygone men." The duke angrily demanded an explanation—and received a classic defense of the superiority of intuitive understanding over language and logic.
I look at the matter in this way; when I am making a wheel, if my stroke is too slow, then it bites deep but is not steady; if my stroke is too fast, then it is steady, but does not go deep. The right pace, neither slow nor fast, cannot get into the hand unless it comes from the heart. It is a thing that cannot be put into words; there is an art in it that I cannot explain to my son. That is why it is impossible for me to let him take over my work, and here I am at the age of seventy, still making wheels. In my opinion, it must have been the same with the men of old. All that was worth handing on died with them; the rest, they put into their books.8
Chuang Tzu's parable that perhaps best illustrates the Taoist ideal concerns a cook who had discovered one lives best by following nature's rhythms. The cook explained that his natural¬ness was easy after he learned to let intuition guide his actions. This approach he called practicing the Tao, but it is in fact the objective of Zen practice as well.
Prince Wen Hui remarked, "How wonderfully you have mastered your art." The cook laid down his knife and said, "What your servant really cares for is Tao, which goes beyond mere art. When I first began to cut up oxen, I saw nothing but oxen. After three years of practicing, I no longer saw the ox as a whole. I now work with my spirit, not with my eyes. My senses stop functioning and my spirit takes over."9
What he described is the elimination of the rational mind, which he refers to as the senses, and the reliance upon the intuitive part of his mind, here called the spirit. He explained how this intuitive approach allowed him to work naturally.
A good cook changes his knife once a year because he cuts, while a mediocre cook has to change his every month because he hacks. I've had this knife of mine for nineteen years and have cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the edge is as if it were fresh from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints. The blade of the knife has no thickness. That which has no thickness has plenty of room to pass through these spaces. Therefore, after nineteen years, my blade is as sharp as ever.10
Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu did not see themselves as founders of any formal religion. They merely described the obvious, encouraging others to be a part of nature and not its antagonist. Their movement, now called Philosophical Taoism, was eclipsed during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) in official circles by various other systems of thought, most particularly Confucianism (which stressed obedience to authority—both that of elders and of superiors—and reverence for formalized learning, not to mention the acceptance of a structured hierarchy as part of one's larger social responsibility). However, toward the end of the Han era there arose two new types of Taoism: an Esoteric Taoism that used physical disciplines to manipulate consciousness, and a Popular Taoism that came close to being a religion in the traditional mold. The first was mystical Esoteric Taoism, which pursued the prolonging of life and vigor, but this gave way during later times to Popular Taoism, a metaphysical alternative to the comfortless, arid Confucianism of the scholarly establishment.
The post-Han era saw the Philosophical Taoism of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu emerge anew among Chinese intellectuals, actually coming to vie with Confucianism. This whole era witnessed a turning away from the accepted values of society, as the well-organized government of the Han era dissolved into political and intellectual confusion. Government was unstable and corrupt, and the Confucianism which had been its philosophical under¬pinning was stilted and unsatisfying. Whenever a society breaks down, the belief system supporting it naturally comes under question. This happened in China in the third and fourth centuries of the Christian era, and from it emerged a natural opposition to Confucianism. One form of this opposition was the imported religion of Buddhism, which provided a spiritual solace missing in the teachings of Confucius, while the other was a revival among intellectuals of Philosophical Taoism.
KUO HSIANG: A NEO-TAOIST
In this disruptive environment, certain intellectuals returned again to the insights of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, creating a movement today known as Neo-Taoism. One of the thinkers who tried to reinterpret original Taoist ideas for the new times was Kuo Hsiang (d. ca. 312), who co-authored a major document of Neo-Taoism entitled Commentary on the Chuang Tzu. It focused on the important Taoist idea of wu-wei, once explained as follows: " . . .to them the key concept of Taoism, wu (literally, nonexistence), is not nothingness, but pure being, which transcends forms and names, and precisely because it is absolute and complete, can accomplish everything. The sage is not one who withdraws into the life of a hermit, but a man of social and political achievements, although these achievements must be brought about through wu-wei, 'nonaction' or 'taking no [unnatural] action.' 1,11
This concept of wu-wei has also been described as abstaining from activity contrary to nature and acting in a spontaneous rather than calculated fashion. In Kuo Hsiang's words:
Being natural means to exist spontaneously without having to take any action. . . . By taking no action is not meant folding one's arms and closing one's mouth. If we simply let everything act by itself, it will be contented with its nature and destiny. (12)
Kuo Hsiang's commentary expanded on almost all the major ideas of Chuang Tzu, drawing out with logic what originally had been set in absurdism. Criticizing this, a later Ch'an monk observed, "People say Kuo Hsiang wrote a commentary on Chuang Tzu. I would say it was Chuang Tzu who wrote a commentary on Kuo Hsiang."13 Nonethe¬less, the idea of wu-wei, processed through Buddhism, emerged in different guise in later Ch'an, influencing the concept of "no-mind."
THE SEVEN SAGES OF THE BAMBOO GROVE
Other Chinese were content merely to live the ideas of Neo-Taoism. Among these were the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, men part of a larger movement known as the School of Pure Conversation. Their favorite pastime was to gather north of Loyang on the estate of one of their members, where they engaged in refined conversation, wrote poetry and music, and (not incidentally) drank wine. To some extent they reflected the recluse ideal of old, except that they found the satisfaction of the senses no impediment to introspec¬tion. What they did forswear, however, was the world of getting and spending. Although men of distinction, they rejected fame, ambition, and worldly station.
There is a story that one of the Seven Sages, a man named Liu Ling (ca. 221-330), habitually received guests while completely naked. His response to adverse comment was to declare, "I take the whole universe as my house and my own room as my clothing. Why, then, do you enter here into my trousers."14
It is also told that two of the sages (Juan Chi, 210-63, and his nephew Juan Hsien) often sat drinking with their family in such conviviality that they skipped the nuisance of cups and just drank directly from a wine bowl on the ground. When pigs wandered by, these too were invited to sip from the same chalice. If one exempts all nature—including pigs—from distinction, discrimination, and duality, why exclude them as drinking companions?
But perhaps the most significant insight of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove was their recognition of the limited uses of language. We are told, "They engaged in conversation 'til, as they put it, they reached the Unnameable, and 'stopped talking and silently understood each other with a smile.' "1S
THE BUDDHIST ROOTS OF ZEN
There is a legend the Buddha was once handed a flower and asked to preach on the law. The story says he received the blossom without a sound and silently wheeled it in his hand. Then amid the hush his most perceptive follower, Kashyapa, suddenly burst into a smile . . . and thus was born the wordless wisdom of Zen.
The understanding of this silent insight was passed down
through the centuries, independent of the scriptures, finally emerging as the Chinese school of Ch'an, later called Zen by the Japanese. It is said the absence of early writings about the school is nothing more than would be expected of a teaching which was, by definition, beyond words. The master Wen-yu summed it up when he answered a demand for the First Principle of Ch'an with, "If words could tell you, it would become the Second Principle."
This version of Zen's origin is satisfying, and for all we know it may even be true. But there are other, considerably more substantive, sources for the ideas that came to flower as Ch'an. Taoism, of course, had plowed away at the Confucianist clutter restraining the Chinese mind, but it was Buddhism that gave China the necessary new philosophical structure—this being the meta-physical speculations of India. Pure Chinese naturalism met Indian abstraction, and the result was Ch'an. The school of Ch'an was in part the grafting of fragile foreign ideas (Buddhism) onto a sturdy native species of understanding (Taoism). But its simplicity was in many ways a re-expression of the Buddha's original insights.
The historic Buddha was born to the high-caste family Gautama during the sixth century B.C. in the region that is today northeast India and Nepal. After a childhood and youth of indulgence he turned to asceticism and for over half a decade rigorously followed the traditional Indian practices of fasting and meditation, only finally to reject these in despair. However, an auspicious dream and one final meditation at last brought total enlightenment. Gautama the seeker had become Buddha the Enlightened, and he set out to preach.
It was not gods that concerned him, but the mind of man and its sorrowing. We are unhappy, he explained, because we are slaves to our desires. Extinguish desire and suffering goes with it. If people could be taught that the physical or phenomenal world is illusion, then they would cease their attachment to it, thereby finding release from their self-destructive mental bondage.
The Buddha neglected to set down these ideas in written form however, perhaps unwisely leaving this task to later generations. His teachings subsequently were recreated in the form of sermons or sutras. In later years, the Buddhist movement split into two separate philosophical camps, known today as Theravada and Mahayana. The Theravada Buddhists—found primarily in south¬east Asia, Sri Lanka, and Burma—venerate the early writings of Buddhism (known today as the Pali Canon) and tend to content themselves with practicing the philosophy of the Buddha rather than enlarging upon it with speculative commentaries. By contrast, the followers of Mahayana—who include the bulk of all Buddhists in China, Japan, and Tibet—left the simple prescriptions of the Buddha far behind in their creation of a vast new literature (in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese) of complex theologies. Chinese Ch'an grew out of Mahayana, as of course did Japanese Zen.
After the Buddha, perhaps the most important Buddhist figure is the second-century A.D. Indian philosopher Nagarjuna. Some call him the most important thinker Asia has produced. According to Tibetan legends his parents sent him away from home at seven because an astrologer had predicted his early death and they wished to be spared the sight. But he broke the spell by entering Buddhist orders, and went on to become the faith's foremost philosopher.
Today Nagarjuna is famous for his analysis of the so-called Wisdom Books of Mahayana, a set of Sanskrit sutras composed between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100. (Included in this category are The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines, as well as the Diamond Sutra and Heart Sutra, both essential scriptures of Zen.) Nagarjuna was the originator of the Middle Path, so named because it strove to define a middle ground between affirmation of the world and complete negation of existence.
Reality, said Nagarjuna, cannot be realized through conceptual constructions, since concepts are contained inside reality, not vice versa. Consequently, only through the intuitive mind can reality be approached. His name for this "reality" beyond the mind's analysis was sunyata, usually translated as "emptiness" but sometimes as "the Void." (Sunyata is perhaps an unprovable concept, but so too are the ego and the unconscious, both hypothetical constructs useful in explaining reality but impossible to locate on the operating table.) Nagarjuna's most-quoted manifesto has the logic-defying ring of a Zen : "Nothing comes into existence nor does anything disappear. Nothing is eternal, nor has anything any end. Nothing is identical or differentiated. Nothing moves hither and thither."
As the Ch'an teachers interpreted the teaching of sunyata, the things of this world are all a mental creation, since external phenomena are transient and only exist for us because of our perception. Consequently they are actually "created" by our mind (or, if you will, a more universal entity called Mind). Consequently they do not exist outside our mind and hence are a void. Yet the
mind itself, which is the only thing real, is also a void since its thoughts cannot be located by the five senses. The Void is therefore everything, since it includes both the world and the mind. Hence, sunyata.
As a modern Nagarjuna scholar has described sunyata, or emptiness, it is a positive sense of freedom, not a deprivation
"This awareness of 'emptiness' is not a blank loss of consciousness, an inanimate space; rather it is the cognition of daily life without the attachment to it. It is an awareness of distinct entities, of the self, of 'good' and 'bad' and other practical determinations; but it is aware of these as empty structures."16
The Zen masters found ways to achieve the cognition without attachment postulated by Nagarjuna, and they paid him homage by making him one of the legendary twenty-eight Indian Patriarchs of Zen by posthumous decree.
The Indian missionary who transmitted the idea of Emptiness to China was Kumarajiva (344-413), a swashbuckling guru who, more than any other individual, was responsible for planting sophisti¬cated Mahayana Buddhist ideas in Chinese soil. Before telling his story, however, it may be well to reflect briefly on how Buddhism got to China in the first place.
Although there are records of a Buddhist missionary in China as early as A.D. 148, historians are hard pressed to find the name of an out-and-out native Chinese Buddhist before sometime in the third century. Buddhism, which at first apparently was confused with Taoism, seems to have come into fashion after the Neo-Taoists ran out of creative steam. Shortly thereafter, around A.D. 209, intelligible Chinese translations of Indian Mahayana sutras finally began to become available.
There were many things about Buddhism, however, that rubbed Chinese the wrong way. First there were the practical matters: Buddhism allowed, if not encouraged, begging, celibacy, and neglect of ancestors—all practices to rankle any traditional Chinese. Then there were fundamental philosophical differences: Buddhism offered to break one out of the Hindu cycle of rebirth, something the Chinese had not realized they needed; and Indian thought was naturally geared to cosmic time, with its endless cycles of eons, whereas the Chinese saw time as a line leading back to identifiable ancestors. Early missionaries tried to gain acceptability for Bud¬dhism by explaining it in Taoist terms, including stretching the two enough to find "matching concepts" or ideas with superficial similarity, and they also let out the myth that the Buddha was actually Lao Tzu, who had gone on to India after leaving China.
When barbarians sacked the Northern Chinese center of Loyang in the year 313 and took over North China's government, many of its influential Confucianist scholars fled to the south. These emigres were disillusioned with the social ideas of Confucianism and ready for a solace of the spirit. Thus they turned for comfort to Buddhist ideas, but using Neo-Taoist terminology and often treating Buddhism more as a subject for salon speculations than as a religion. By translating Buddhism into a Neo-Taoist framework, these southern intellectuals effectively avoided having to grapple with the new ideas in Buddhist metaphysics.
In North China, the Buddhists took advantage of the new absence of competing Confucianists to move into ruling circles and assume the role of the literate class. They preached a simple form of Buddhism, often shamelessly dwelling on magic and incantations to arouse interest among the greatest number of followers. The common people were drawn to Buddhism, since it provided for the first time in China a religion that seemed to care for people's suffering, their personal growth, their salvation in an afterlife. Thus Buddhism took hold in North China mainly because it provided hope and magic for the masses and a political firewall against Confucianism for the new rulers. As late as the beginning of the fifth century, therefore, Buddhism was misunderstood and encouraged for the wrong reasons in both north and south.
Kumarajiva, who would change all this, was born in Kucha to an Indian father of the Brahmin caste and a mother of noble blood. When he was seven he and his mother traveled to Kashmir to enter Buddhist orders together. After several years of studying the Theravada sutras, he moved on to Kashgar, where he turned his attention to Mahayana philosophy. At age twenty we find him back in Kucha, being ordained in the king's palace and sharpening his understanding of the Mahayana scriptures. He also, we are told, sharpened his non-Buddhist amorous skills, perhaps finding consolation in the illusory world of the senses for the hollow emptiness of sunyata.
In the year 382 or 383, he was taken captive and removed to a remote area in northeastern China, where he was held prisoner for almost two decades, much to the dismay of the rulers in Ch'ang-an, who wanted nothing more than to have this teacher (who was by then a famous Buddhist scholar) for their own. After seventeen years their patience ran out and they sent an army to defeat his recalcitrant captors and bring him back. He arrived in Ch'ang-an in the year 401 and immediately began a project crucial to the future of Chinese Buddhism. A modern scholar of Chinese religion tells what happened next.
". . . Chinese monks were assembled from far and near to work with him in translating the sacred texts. This was a 'highly structured project,' suggestive of the cooperative enterprises of scientists today. There were corps of specialists at all levels: those who discussed doctrinal questions with Kumarajiva, those who checked the new translations against the old and imperfect ones, hundreds of editors, sub-editors, and copyists. The quality and quantity of the translations produced by these men in the space of eight years is truly astounding. Thanks to their efforts the ideas of Mahayana Buddhism were presented in Chinese with far greater clarity and precision than ever before. Sunyata—Nagar- juna's concept of the Void—was disentangled from the Taoist terminology that had obscured and distorted it, and this and other key doctrines of Buddhism were made comprehensible enough to lay the intellectual foundations of the great age of independent Chinese Buddhism that was to follow."17
The Chinese rulers contrived to put Kumarajiva's other devotion to use as well, installing a harem of ten beautiful young Chinese girls for him, through whom he was encouraged to perpetuate a lineage of his own. This genetic experiment apparently came to nothing, but two native Chinese studying under him, Seng-chao (384-414) and Tao-sheng (ca. 360-434), would carry his contribution through the final steps needed to open the way for the development of Ch'an.
The short-lived Seng-chao was born to a humble family in the Ch'ang-an region, where he reportedly got his indispensable ground-ing in the Chinese classics by working as a copyist. He originally was a confirmed Taoist, but after reading the sutra of Vimalakirti (which described a pious nobleman who combined the secular life of a bon vivant businessman with an inner existence of Buddhist enlighten¬ment, a combination instantly attractive to the practical Chinese), Seng-chao turned Buddhist. In the year 398, at age fifteen, he traveled to the northwest to study personally under the famous Kumarajiva, and he later returned to Ch'ang-an with the master.
Conversant first in the Taoist and then in the Buddhist classics, Seng-chao began the real synthesis of the two that would eventually evolve into Ch'an. The China scholar Walter Liebenthal has written that the doctrine of Nagarjuna's Middle Path, sinicized by Seng-chao, emerged in the later Ch'an thinkers cleansed of the traces of Indian origin. He declares, "Seng-chao interpreted Mahayana, [the Ch'an founders] Hui-neng and Shen-hui re-thought it."18
Three of Seng-chao's treatises exist today as the Book of Chao (or Chao Lun), and they give an idea of how Chuang Tzu might have written had he been a Buddhist. There is the distrust of words, the unmistakable preference for immediate, intuitive knowledge, and the masterful use of wordplay and paradox that leaves his meaning ambiguous. Most important of all, he believed that truth had to be experienced, not reasoned out. Truth was what lay behind words; it should never be confused with the words themselves:
“A thing called up by a name may not appear as what it is expected to appear; a name calling up a thing may not lead to the real thing. Therefore the sphere of Truth is beyond the noise of verbal teaching. How then can it be made the subject of discussion? Still I cannot remain silent.”19
The dean of Zen scholars, Heinrich Dumoulin, declares, "The relationship of Seng-chao to Zen is to be found in his orientation toward the immediate and experiential perception of absolute truth, and reveals itself in his preference for the paradox as the means of expressing the inexpressible."20 Dumoulin also notes that the Book of Chao regards the way to enlightenment as one of gradual progress. However, the idea that truth can be approached gradually was disputed by the other major pupil of Kumarajiva, whose insistence that enlightenment must arrive instantaneously has caused some to declare him the ideological founder of Zen.
The famous Tao-sheng was the first Chinese Buddhist to advance the idea of "sudden" enlightenment, and as a result he earned the enmity of his immediate colleagues—and lasting fame as having anticipated one of the fundamental innovations of Zen thought. He first studied Buddhism at Lu-shan, but in 405 he moved to Ch'ang-an, becoming for a while a part of the coterie surrounding Kumarajiva. None of his writings survive, but the work of a colleague, Hui-yuan, is usually taken as representative of his ideas.
Tao-sheng is known today for two theories. The first was that good deeds do not automatically bring reward, a repudiation of the Indian Buddhist concept of merit. The other, and perhaps more important, deviation he preached was that enlightenment was instantaneous. The reason, he said, was simple: since Buddhists say the world is one, nothing is divisible, even truth, and therefore the subjective understanding of truth must come all at once or not at all. Preparatory work and progress toward the goal of enlightenment, including study and meditation, could proceed step-by-step and are wholesome and worthwhile, but to "reach the other shore," as the phrase in the Heart Sutra describes enlightenment, requires a leap over a gulf, a realization that must hit you with all its force the first time.
What exactly is it that you understand on the other shore? First you come to realize—as you can only realize intuitively and directly—that enlightenment was within you all along. You become enlightened when you finally recognize that you already had it. The next realization is that there actually is no "other shore," since reaching it means realizing that there was nothing to reach. As his thoughts have been quoted: "As to reaching the other shore, if one reaches it, one is not reaching the other shore. Both not-reaching and not-not-reaching are really reaching. . . . If one sees Buddha, one is not seeing Buddha. When one sees there is no Buddha, one is really seeing Buddha."21
Little wonder Tao-sheng is sometimes credited as the spiritual father of Zen. He championed the idea of sudden enlightenment, something inimical to much of the Buddhism that had gone before, and he distrusted words (comparing them to a net which, after it has caught the fish of truth, should be discarded). He identified the Taoist idea of wu-wei or "nonaction" with the intuitive, spontaneous apprehension of truth without logic, opening the door for the Ch'an mainstay of "no-mind" as a way to ultimate truth.
Buddhism has always maintained a skeptical attitude toward reality and appearances, something obviously at odds with the wholeheart-ed celebration of nature that characterizes Taoism. Whereas Buddhism believes it would be best if we could simply ignore the world, the source of our psychic pain, the Taoists wanted nothing so much as to have complete union with this same world. Buddhism teaches union with the Void, while Taoism teaches union with the Tao. At first they seem opposite directions. But the synthesis of these doctrines appeared in Zen, which taught that the oneness of the Void, wherein all reality is subsumed, could be understood as an encompassing whole or continuum, as in the Tao. Both are merely expressions of the Absolute. The Buddhists unite with the Void; the Taoists yearn to merge with the Tao. In Zen the two ideas reconcile.
With this philosophical prelude in place, we may now turn to the masters who created the world of Zen.
THE EARLY MASTERS
in which a sixth-century Indian teacher of meditation, Bodhidharma, arrives in China to initiate what would become a Buddhist school of meditation called Ch'an. After several generations as wanderers, these Ch'an teachers settle into a form of monastic life and gradually grow in prominence and recognition. Out of this prosperity emerges a split in the eighth-century Ch'an movement, between scholarly urban teachers who believe enlightenment is "gradual" and requires preparation in traditional Buddhism, and rural Ch'anists who scorn society and insist enlightenment is experiential and "sudden," owing little to the prosperous Buddhist establishment. Then a popular teacher of rural Ch'an, capitalizing on a civil disruption that momentarily weakens the urban elite, gains the upper hand and emasculates urban Ch'an through his preaching that the authentic line of teaching must be traced to an obscure teacher in the rural south, now remembered as the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng.