Even though I’m a Christian (of the Latter-Day Saint variety), I find great wisdom in many other philosophies and religions. This is an essay I wrote for a religious studies class in 2001 on the basic tenets of Zen Buddhism. It describes the ostensible goals and methods of the religion, and may be of some use to other non-Buddhists, much as learning about it has been to me.
The Zen Path to Salvation for All Beings
By Dane Mutters, 2001
As with most other religions, the ultimate goal of Zen (Ch’an) Buddhism is to end all suffering. In doing this, all practitioners of the Zen tradition are considered to be “Bodhisattvas,” or compassionate Buddhas. A compassionate Buddha’s duty is to first clear his own mind and reach enlightenment, then to help every other creature on the face of the Earth do the same. The primary way of doing this is through perfection of karma, or works, and thereby perfection of the results of these works.
Karma can take many forms—anger, kindness, charity and happiness are all possibilities. But how does one control this karma? Is it good to only have the most desirable karma all the time? According to Zen Master Seung Sahn, this is not appropriate. He suggests that we let ourselves be a “mirror,” unstained by concepts and preconceived notions, but utterly reflective of others’ karma. “Don’t check your mind—when you are angry, be angry. When you are happy, be happy. When sad, be sad.” (p.69) When we try to change our mood and situation, we are simply putting a mask over the way things really are.
A true Zen practitioner would point out that “pleasure” and “pain” are only words, developed by those eager to conceptualize what they are experiencing, which only detracts from the original experience by taking the person away from the state of “don’t know mind” and placing him in a state of grasping, which takes him farther from satori, or enlightenment. (Sahn, p.69) This grasping causes us to create our own reality as we want it to be, instead of seeing it as it really is. For an illustration of this, I offer a koan from Beyond Marginality: Constructing a Self in the Twilight of Western Culture. Here, a disciple, Seihei is conversing with his master, Suibi:
“What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?”
“Wait, said Suibi; “when there is no one around I will tell you.”
After a while, Seihei repeated the request, saying, “There is no one here now; pray enlighten me.”
Coming down from his chair, Suibi took the anxious enquirer into the bamboo grove, but said nothing. When the latter pressed for a reply, Suibi whispered: “how high these bamboos are! And how short those over there!”
(Muller, p. 26)
Why do we want to identify and categorize feelings and motivations in every experience? Why do we insist on making connections where none should exist? Does the fact that some bamboos are short and others are tall have a deeper meaning? We should not try to associate everything we see with something other than what it is, or our experience will become only that—a “thing.” Once we have created a “thing,” our experience ceases to be. It is now no more than what we have created, and thus polluted. The goal of Zen Buddhism, therefore, is to rectify all names, and thereby eliminate them.
The problem exists in that people think using words and names. How, then, if we eliminate all such names, are we going to think? The answer is, we won’t. This is not intended in the Orwellian sense, but rather to the effect that true understanding, or enlightenment, comes before thinking and thinking before words, which lead to the creation of “things,” which cloud our view of reality. The solution, therefore, is to cut off that process once we have achieved a true understanding, and therefore cease altogether to think.
Sahn has pointed this out on multiple occasions to people who have brought questions to him. His most common response is, “only go straight ahead—don’t know.” In order to illustrate this, he uses the example of Hyang Eom’s koan, “Up a Tree.”
“It is like a man up a tree who is hanging from a branch by his teeth. His hands cannot grasp a bough, his feet cannot touch the tree; he is tied and bound. Another man under the tree asks him, ‘Why did Bodhidarma come to China?’ If he does not answer, he evades his duty and he will be killed. If he answers, he will lose his life. If you are in the tree, how do you stay alive?”
If you don’t know, you’re on the right path. While a rational man might argue semantics, “being in the tree does not make me the man hanging by his teeth, therefore I will keep my life regardless;” a Zen practitioner will intuitively know the intent of the question and use it to better understand himself by probing into the nothingness that is before thought. To a Zen practitioner, lingering on wording only distracts one’s view of reality.
We now come back to the topic of karma. A true bodhisattva, intending to end all suffering, links his karma to that of every other being. So as to feel what they feel and to better sympathize with them, he must clear his “mirror” of all distractions. However, in order to avoid the pitfalls of those whom he is trying to save, he must first detach from his feelings.
Seung Sahn explains this to a mother who, though a Zen practitioner, became so angry with her delinquent son as to nearly come to blows. He states that her anger before practicing the Dharma was attached anger—she claimed it as her own, and was thus only able to let go of it after a long period of “cooling-down” time. After some practice, however, she showed reflected anger; she reflected the anger of her son, but after an hour or so was able to regain equilibrium and set things aright. With a little more practice she would attain a state of perceived anger. This kind of anger is still within, but very controllable. Eventually, continuous practice would lead to loving anger, which is not felt, but shown so that others would benefit from it.
This line of (not-)thinking points to the eventuality that all feelings are no more than our perceptions of them. Following from this comes the possibility that through ceasing to assign names and associations to our experiences, we can eliminate feelings altogether within ourselves, and through charity, eliminate them in others as well. Thus we are able to reach a state of perfect equilibrium, undistracted by our particular views of things. This equilibrium is referred to as one’s “primary point.” Sahn likens the unsteadiness of emotions to the shocks on motor vehicles. “A taxi has weak shock absorbers, so it bounces up and down when it hits a small bump. A train has strong shock absorbers, so it is very steady, no matter what. If you keep your primary point, your mind-spring will become stronger and stronger. A big problem will come and your mind will move, but it will soon return to primary point. Finally your mind will be very strong, and it will be able to carry any load. Then saving all beings from suffering is possible.” (p.7)
In order to be effective as a Zen bodhisattva, it is first necessary to disassociate experiences from words, words from thoughts and thoughts from the nothingness that is before thought. Having done so, a person can reach satori,or enlightenment. Once we have thus gained a clear mind, and are fully able to empathize with others, an end to all suffering is possible.
Sahn, Seung. Only Don’t Know. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, Inc.
Muller, René J. Beyond Marginality: Constructing a Self in the Twilight of Western Culture. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.