The Actual Realisation of Emptiness

This is a retreat report on the Western Chan Fellowship retreat called ‘Shattering the Great Doubt,’ held at Maenllwyd, in September 2014. The retreat was a nine day silent meditation retreat in the Chan (Zen) tradition of koan study. The focus of one’s meditations is a self-selected koan from one of the classic collections. In addition to the long periods of silent meditation, there are daily talks by the teacher, and occasional one to one ‘interviews’ with the teacher (dokusan), usually about once every two days. One hopes to break through to Enlightenment, an experience variously described in the literature of zen as ‘the falling away of body and mind,’ or ‘seeing the nature,’ or ‘the realisation of emptiness.’

The first evening, before the rule of silence takes effect, each of us says why we have come. To simplify, simplify, simplify, I said. I did not want elaborate conundrums. I wanted to strip things down to as little as possible. When the koans were offered on the second day, there was the perfect one for my purpose: “Ordinary Mind is the Way” (Mumonkan, Koan 19). It continues: “If you try for it you will become separated from it.” And, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing.” It was an instruction manual in how to simplify.

The koan in full goes like this:

I had a new agenda to work on in meditation: get out of the way; be in the present; add nothing; have no expectations. But it did not work because I began finding out shocking things about myself. Simon’s next talk pushed me further into the pretentions and complacency of my sense of self. I realised I was only interested in other people if they had something to offer me. I realised that even my caring for dying friends was contaminated by bits of ego, and limited by my other priorities. The koan was right. If I was seeking some satisfaction or sense of goodness from the encounter with a friend, then we would, “become separated” from the Way. I recalled many instances of feeling sadly separated when I had wanted to feel intimate and open with someone. I found ludicrous examples of pride wherever I looked. Even my relationship with the sense of mystical bliss, The Mystery itself, was selfish: I wanted it when it suited me, and for it to go back in its box and wait for me at other times. It should not disrupt my pleasant, busy lifestyle.

In the next interview, a day later, as I reported these dreadful findings to Simon, he said, “You have got plenty of time for yourself, not much for others. It is controlling. Is there a fear of letting others in? The Mystery might take you anywhere.” I wanted to get rid of myself, shoot the greedy little selfish so and so. “Just relax,” said Simon. “Soften. Open to the Mystery.”

I did now realise how ridiculous and insubstantial all my cherished bits of pride and ambition and complacency were. I let go of them. Then the last piece too, had to go: the affection I had for my pride, the attachment to my idea of myself. All of these ideas I had about myself were flimflam. All my favourite beliefs, my specialist knowledge, my attainments, my hopes, my doubts, the life-story I repeat, they are all flimflam. They are unreal. They are bits of invention, imagined fantasy productions. Let them go. Open yourself to what you don’t know.

With this insight, I could now proceed with my simplifying agenda in meditation: get out of the way; be in the present; add nothing; have no expectations. The following morning, Thursday, in that beautiful first hour of meditation, I did it. I monitored my mind for any trace of the things Nansen warns me about in the koan; any trace of seeking; any trace of knowing; any lack of trust. Instead of having ideas about The Mystery (that it would deepen and be more blissful and explode into enlightenment) I just examined it. It has absolutely no concern for my absurd hopes and fears and ambitions and pride in attainment, I realised. None whatsoever. And why should it? The whole lot is absurdly trivial. And not really there. Not there at all. The universe flows on. Thousands of generations of creatures grow and die. Their wanting and attachments and ego concerns are all empty imaginings. It’s not just that they are self-serving – we all know that when we think about it – but that they are not there, and nor are the people constructed of them, such as me. Flimflam. Not there. I’m not really there. I feel like a root and nothing growing from it but an awareness of space. It is a jolt. I am not now thinking empty, I am really not there. It is a vivid and dramatic experience and emptiness is the right word for it, a word that has for years been elusive and ultimately incomprehensible to me. It is now clear to me how to be with my dying friends. By letting go. Death is empty too. All that cloudy stuff of wishing it away, clinging, protesting – that stuff is not real. It is empty. What dies is the body. All the highly valued personality that we are so profoundly attached to was never there in the first place. Life is the value. But what it is, I have no idea. There is a great Mystery but nothing for a self to seek or attain. There is the ordinary sublime to wonder at, but our reactions are neither here nor there and we can’t know anything about it. I sit through the beautiful morning service and as others eat their breakfasts I do many prostrations of gratitude to the Buddha.

Simon’s next talk was on, “All our world of experience is created by the mind. There is nothing that is not produced by the mind.” Wonderful. He manages to explain these abstruse ideas in very down-to-earth terms and make them perfectly clear. He guides my practice and I can feel the profound changes happening within me.

At the end of the day I had the opportunity for an interview. I had seen empty, Simon implied, but not entirely emptied myself out. You are dying, he insisted. What do you feel about that? I was stumped for the moment. Tired now, hours after the morning’s elation, my sense of an empty self was not secure. Keep practicing, he said.

The next morning, Friday, with new energy and the wonderful clarity of the dawn sit, I pushed on with my stripping down, simplifying, and letting go. I had to loosen control, receive rather than transmit, and be wu wei, empty of ulterior purpose. I monitored my mind clear of self-concern and the last vestiges of wanting, to just accept the experience of the present, with no expectations.

I saw how it corrupts to have any views or intentions, even well-meaning ones (in caring for my dying friends, for example, or in any kind of loving relationship). I was now convinced that my selfish little bits of wanting were standing in my way and really needed to be rid of them. I followed the guidance of Nansen in the koan, watching out for seeking, knowing, and doubt. It was surprisingly easy. Everything opened up. It was “vast and boundless like outer space”, as the koan said. As I emptied, the whole universe emptied, and there was no centre. The root I had yesterday was gone and there was no viewing position for me at all. Vast undifferentiated emptiness. It is not just a bigger version of the oceanic sense of spaciousness one gets in a clear meditation but a completely different experience, very distinct and vivid. Not that the world outside had gone, or that my body had really disappeared, of course, but that there was no bit of me in the way. How extraordinarily straightforward it was. The mechanism was simple: root out all the deluded flimflam of the seeking, wanting ego… and there is nothing but the boundless Mystery. Later, outside, the world shines, fully itself in perfection, pristine. You’d have thought that to make the world perfect all those bloody people with their half-baked beliefs and violent reactions would have to be emptied out, but no, it’s nice little me who has to be emptied. How extraordinary. I can answer the question Simon challenged me with. The proper attitude to my death is to go through it without wanting anything to be different, because I can see how futile that is, and any wanting at all gets in the way, ruining your joy in the present, closing you down to one needy issue. Acceptance. I should start now, because as Simon has pointed out with relish, I’ve already started dying.

Simon quoted Master Shengyen distinguishing between Contemplating Emptiness and the actual Realisation of Emptiness. He thought my Thursday experience was Contemplating Emptiness. As we talked, he acknowledged that the complete emptiness of Friday was the actual Realisation of Emptiness. Keep practicing, he said.

I am deeply grateful to Simon for his teaching. I have the greatest possible respect for him. The koan retreat at the Maenllwyd is a rare and beautiful experience, beyond all valuing. If only people knew what an amazing resource it is! It is a national treasure. I think it is the perfect way of doing these things and I would not want to go to any other kind of sangha. I love the place, and I love the flexible, helpful, but brilliantly focused spotlight of the teaching. And I am grateful to Simon for transmitting the magnificent Buddha dharma of compassion and wisdom passed down through all the teachers from Shakyamuni all the way to Masters Shengyen and John Crook, and transmitting it with humanity and humility.

In a Shoreham garden by Samuel Palmer with grateful acknowledgement to the Victoria & Albert museum.

Is this life or is this death?

A koan is a teaching tool to challenge you to solve the insoluble. It is a most ingenious Chinese invention in the history of Zen education. It is not entirely silly. You can solve the insoluble, but you do not get a ‘solution’ that is transferable to other people as a gobbet of knowledge. And you do not get an ‘answer’ that is in the form predicted by the question. What you get instead is a series of insights about the assumptions built into your thinking, your language and your perceptions. And you somehow mysteriously come to a sense of satisfaction with the meaning even though you have no ‘answer.’

As an example, take koan number 55 from the Blue Cliff Record:  

One day Dogo, accompanied by his disciple Zengen, went to visit a family in which a funeral was to take place, in order to express sympathy. Zengen touched the coffin and said, “Tell me please, is this life or is this death?”

Dogo said, “I would not tell you whether it is life or it is death.”

Zengen said, “Why don’t you tell me?”

Dogo said, “No, I would not tell you.”

On their way home Zengen said, “Please be kind enough to tell me. If not I’ll hit you.”

Dogo said, “Strike me if you like, but I would not tell you.”

Zengen struck Dogo.

Blue Cliff Record Case #55

Your task, on a koan retreat, or in your practice at home, is to meditate upon the koan. At the heart of it is the burning question, “Is this life or is this death?” Can you resolve the disciple Zengen’s anxiety?

In your meditation the question becomes an examination of your own sense of life, which includes your own sense of your dying.

You carry the koan around with you in your mind in daily life and apply it like a measuring instrument to all that you encounter: chicken tikka – Is this life or is this death?” Dead leaves, fading flowers, flourishing mosquitos – Is this life or is this death?”   In the end you have to make your own peace with the conundrum, in your own way.

I start my notes like this: The question is about life and death; all life and death, not a specific corpse; and it challenges me to investigate the life and death in me. I start by feeling the life in my belly, as I breathe, in my meditation. It is consciousness, whatever that is. I feel it, or, at least, I am conscious of it. Is it inside me or outside? Is it generated by my biology, or by the environment that makes the food, the air, water and sunlight? Impossible to tell. Is there a “life force,” and is it inner, or universal? Impossible to tell.

It is life; or it is some inspiration in the universe that keeps life going and is beginningless and endless. My life is short, I know, so why does “life” feel beginningless and endless? I have a striking insight: it is not personal. It is not “my” life. It is greater than me, and indifferent to me, in a benignly neglectful way. In that sense “my life” is empty. The “myness” of it is an illusion; my sense of being in charge of it is empty flimflam, a fantasy of self reassurance. There is life, and I am hitching a ride on it for a short while.

‘What is my “Original Face” from the time before my father and mother were born?’ (that is another koan) – and, I add, as I think about it, ‘What is my Original Face after my grandson will be dead?’ It is a universal life, the possession of no one. To name it would suggest that it is a great thing, and that it could be worshipped, but that would be inappropriate.  It is not an it. It does not give a damn for me, and it is wonderful. What is it?

 

No doer of the deeds is found;

No one who ever reaps their fruits.

Empty phenomena roll on,

This only is the correct view.

No god or Brahma can be called

The maker of this wheel of life.

Empty phenomena roll on

Dependent on conditions all.

Buddhagosa, 5th century.

 

My death would not be a personal thing either, I reflected. There is a great impersonal living process going on, irrespective of anyone’s opinions or desires, and we are all grist to the mill. The universe churns out life, all of which ages, decays, transforms, dies and is recycled. Like my life, my death is also “empty” of myness. It is quite unconcerned with notions of deserving, justice or care. “Death is just the end of the assumption that there is someone who owns Life” (Unmani Liza Hyde). “Empty phenomena roll on.”

On retreat in Normandy I had another insight, feeling for the first time the full force of the phrase, “The life and death of each moment.” It began when I tried to recreate in my mind the pleasure of being hailed by Mathilde, daughter of my friends. She appeared in a garden, to my surprise, and called out, running towards me. I was delighted to see her again. Can one keep hold of a special moment like that? Can we recreate it? Can we sustain its life in nostalgia’s aspic? No. It lives gloriously, and then it is gone.

 

Greeting Mathilde!

Can I keep the moment

like dew in the fridge?

 

A second insight came quickly: if one is living vividly in the present moment the potential for experiences of great joy and fullness is all over the place, all the time. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “M’installant dans le moment présent, je sais que c’est un moment merveilleux.”

Mathilde may be specially wonderful, but, in fact, watching any old bee nosing in any old flower is beautiful, as generous a gift as the universe has to offer, and available at this time of year all over the place. When one is completely clear in Ordinary Mind and focused on the present marvellous moment, all moments are vivid bliss. But time moves on. You can’t hold any of them. They die, all of them. You have to move on to the birth of the next.

What an incredible waste of life it is that we miss so many of these gorgeous, vivid experiences all around us all the time! They are born in their fullness and then fade as our attention shifts to the next.

What do I mean by “born”?  The same flowers are here in the garden today as were here yesterday, a little older, but to a quick glance, the same. The trees are the same. Some things have relatively stable continuity over time, relatively much longer than flowers or even trees, – so how is glancing at them the “birth” of them? Do I give birth to Rouen cathedral by looking at it?

Yes. It is the noticing. Instants are born in one’s consciousness. There is no continuity in the mind’s vivid perceptions, in full attentiveness. It is in constant motion. It flows without stopping. It is time. The noticing is not a copy of yesterday’s noticing of the same flower, the same tree, the same cathedral, and cannot be so. The perceptions flare and die, flare and die, flare and die, moment by moment, each one the distillation of the whole universe, and all its life, in this second. This second is the only bit of time that is alive, and it is already dying.

The great mystic William Blake saw it:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

The continuities are reassuring constructs in the background. They are a notional framework, but they are not where we live. We live and die each moment, in our beady looking, riveted on a close-up; or listening, note by delicious note. Tasting. Touching. That is how we are alive in the present. We live where our attention is fully focused. “Eternity” and “Infinity” are concentrated there. The relationship is best expressed by Blake again: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”

In the following morning’s service we chanted The Heart Sutra. I was struck by how lines of text are like our journey through time. They remain the same through a thousand years as ink printed on paper, but when your eye travels along the lines, and you voice them, your mind flares with the imagined fullness of a word or phrase. It leaps into an idea and its implications and then attention smoothly moves on, echoing or resonating with the idea and adding to it the next one. The silent symbols spring into life and speak their meanings.

You lose attention for a bit, distracted, or recalling an earlier phrase, and miss half a sentence, which lies there dead, as you pass by without bringing it to life. According to how focused you are in the moments of your reading, the words leap into life briefly and then fade and die as you move through the space-time continuum of the text.

 

Phrase by phrase

The Heart Sutra

bursts into life

 

There is a physical landscape of short-lived or long-lived stable things, a mix of continuities, through which one moves, carried by time: flowers, trees, cathedrals, and the culture of historic texts. But one lives in the mind’s awareness. Living moments flare in one’s perceptions, fade and die, flaring and dying. Is this life or is this death?”  

I would not tell you.

I would not tell you, but my answer to myself is this. It is. Life and death. Each of them separately. Both of them together. Neither of them. It’s impossible to tell them apart. The words are nonsense. But I am content.

 

 

 

 

 

George Marsh 1652 words May 2017

Photographs: Tom Moulson

 

 

“Like a fish hidden in a spring:” How Daoist is Zen?

Laozi at the Western gate with Yin Xi 001

 

zen had two parents, buddhism and daoism. buddhism gave it the theoretical foundation. daoism gave it a paradoxical chinese character, the subtle attitude of Laozi.

“Like a fish hidden in a spring:” The Dao De Jing*of Laozi and its influence on Chan

*(We should all be using the pinyin system of transliteration now, so, though the Dao De Jing is better known in English speaking countries as the Tao Te Ching and Laozi is better known as Lao Tsu, I shall spell in pinyin, though translations will be quoted accurately as originally spelled).

Daoist ideas permeated all aspects of Chinese life before Buddhism arrived in China: philosophy, science, medicine, arts, physical fitness, cooking, agriculture and governance were all seen in terms of Daoist principles of constant change, the balance of yin and yang, and flow. When Buddhism arrived in China in the first century BCE, it was interpreted in the light of Laozi’s Dao De Jing.

The sutras of the Buddha’s teachings are much studied and much admired in Chan, but let me also make a case for marvelling at the teachings of Laozi, which give Chan its distinctively playful style, quite different from the language of the Pali canon which can be dry and repetitive, as Hugh Carroll says. Laozi lived in China at more or less the same period as the Buddha lived in India, and each of them had vivid experience of the mystical vision. The Buddha was a brilliant intellectual and theorised his insight. Laozi was anti-intellectual and only reluctantly put his wisdom into words; words which were enigmatic and allusive. There is a much-illustrated story that he was leaving China through one of the Western gates and the gate-keeper, Yin Xi, refused to let him go until he had written down his wisdom for the Chinese to keep. The two of them are shown above. Laozi wrote the eighty one short chapters of the Dao De Jing, now the most translated book in the world.

The Dao 

Laozi describes the Dao in Chapter 34:

The great Tao flows everywhere, both to the left and to the right.

The ten thousand things depend upon it; it holds nothing back.

It fulfils its purpose silently and makes no claim.

[Quotation from the Feng and English translation]

The Dao is nature’s flow. The word means ‘way,’ or ‘path,’ or ‘guidance,’ and seems to be used for the way of nature, the way nature is, and also the source of nature’s creativity. More prosaically it is just the way things are and the way they function. There is a way to fry a small fish, for example, and you’ll make a mess of it if you don’t have some care. Laozi scales this up.

Govern big countries

Like you cook little fish [Chapter 60, Addiss and Lombardo] 

It is ultimately a mystery. The universe is there, life teems, everything changes – what is the mysterious way it works?

It is like the mother of all under heaven,

                        But I don’t know its name –

                                    Better call it Tao.

                                    Better call it great. [Chapter 25] 

Laozi is careful not to define it as a philosopher would. He says that it cannot be known, and that the word Dao does not capture it. The closest he can get is a tautology:

Tao follows what is natural. 

‘What is natural’ is the Chinese word for nature, ziran, which David Hinton tells us is made of symbols meaning ‘self-generating’ or, more vividly, since the ideogram for fire is part of it, ‘self-ablaze.’ 

The Dao is the underlying self-generating order of the universe and the original creative source of all things. This Chinese view is an energetic, unified, harmonious, temperate, continuously changing vision of nature (unlike the angry thunder and lightning gods of the Greeks or the merciless sun gods of the Middle East); and Laozi goes on to say that our attitude should be to follow its lead, to accept it as it is, to harmonise with it, and not to try and control or dominate nature.

The universe is sacred.

You cannot improve it.

If you try to change it, you will ruin it.

If you try to hold it, you will lose it. [Chapter 29]. 

And his images for the way to harmonise with nature start with water:

                        Best to be like water,

Which benefits the ten thousand things

And does not contend.

It pools where humans disdain to dwell,

Close to the Dao…

Only do not contend,

And you will not go wrong.

[Chapter 8 in the Addiss and Lombardo translation] 

In Chapter 28 Laozi commends feminine and childlike qualities:

…keep a woman’s care!

                        Be the stream of the universe!

Being the stream of the universe,

Ever true and unswerving,

Become as a little child once more. [Feng and English translation] 

The Dao will nourish one and have a good curative effect if one respects its subtle workings.

Tao is empty ­­–

                                    Its use never exhausted .

Bottomless

The origin of all things.

                        It blunts sharp edges,

                                    Unties knots,

                                    Softens glare,

                                    Becomes one with the dusty world. [Chapter 4, Addiss and Lombardo] 

Adam, a member of the Portsmouth Chan group, explained this perfectly: “The practice of meditation has blunted my sharp edges, untied my knots and softened my glare,” he said.

Everything changes. Language tries to subdivide the flow and freeze the movement. Laozi is sceptical, wary of naming the parts. He contrasts the Dao with things that can be defined by naming, in the very first words of Chapter 1:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named is not the eternal name. [Feng and English]

And he goes on to elaborate an argument that associates the naming of things with a separation from the source, a distancing from reality’s mobile suchness. Naming, and all the labelling and discriminating that language use implies, is a kind of possessiveness, a control mechanism, leading to the human desire to own, to cling (a theme that exactly matches the Buddha’s insights, and the Buddha’s emphasis on how things are perceived or misperceived):

The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.

The named is the mother of ten thousand things.

Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.

Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.

But he avoids making this contrast into a great universal dualism:

These two spring from the same source but differ in name…

                        The gate to all mystery. 

There is a health warning with the Dao. Laozi seems to write of it as an ultimately unknowable ineffable mystery. Or does he? Perhaps he is making the more limited point, not that it is ineffable, but that language cannot capture it. He is laconic, and sometimes obscure in writing about it. But he implicitly gives it some attributes: integrity, wisdom and healing power. Is it an active agent in the world?

Tao hides, no name.

            Yet Tao alone gets things done. [Chapter 41 Addiss and Lombardo] 

Is it nearly a god? At one point he tells us,

The Tao begot one.

One begot two.

Two begot three.

And three begot the ten thousand things.[Chapter 42] 

but never says any more about this, and changes the subject immediately:

                        What others teach, I also teach; that is:

“A violent man will die a violent death!”

This will be the essence of my teaching.[Chapter 42] 

so it is difficult to see what he means by one, two, three and the ten thousand things. It is wide open to wild interpretations. Some have founded a religion on this and worshipped the Dao. There are superstitious Daoist cults in China today. Some have seen it as a philosophical origin myth like Plato’s Timaeus, with a Creator, a Demiurge, and junior gods. But judging by all the rest of the Dao De Jing, most interpreters see it as another way of saying that the Dao is a word pointing to the phenomenon of self-generating growth and change in all things: the ten thousand things are manifestations of nature’s way, arising mysteriously out of what a mystic perceives as a unity. Laozi specifically cautions against worshipping it.

The Chan teachers of the Golden Age of Zen, a thousand years after Laozi, often use the word Dao for the spiritual path or the way of practicing. They use other terms for the indefinable mystery at the core of things and absolutely refuse to turn it into an idea by defining it. Bodhidharma uses ‘mind’ (“This mind has no form or characteristics, no cause or effect, no tendons or bones. It’s like space”). Huineng uses ‘Essence of Mind’ (“Our Essence of Mind is intrinsically pure; all things are only its manifestations”). Huang Po, Linji’s teacher, uses ‘One Mind’ (“All the buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but One Mind, beside which nothing exists. This Mind, which is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible.”)  Linji warns against naming, “…the mind ground. If you can get it, use it, without putting any more labels on it”. He also, like Laozi, warns against treating it as sacred. Many of the protagonists of the koans collected by Hongzhi and Mumon use the term ‘Buddha nature,’ as in the famous first koan in The Gateless Gate, “Does a dog have  Buddha nature or not?”  The answer “No,” is the health warning: do not interpret the Dao or the Buddha nature as an idea, as something sacred, or as anything distinguishable from all that is in nature.

The greatest Chan teachers sound very like followers of Laozi when attempting to articulate a response to the mystery of ziran: “If you try to grasp Zen in movement, it goes into stillness. If you try to grasp Zen in stillness, it goes into movement. It is like a fish hidden in a spring, drumming up waves and dancing independently.” (Linji)  It is impossible to say anything at all more than the tautology of Laozi: it is a mystery; nature is nature. “There is something in the world that is neither in the sphere of the ordinary nor in the sphere of the holy. It is neither in the realm of the false nor in the realm of the true.” (Wuzu)

Chan literature, following in the wake of the Prajna Paramita sutras, is philosophically sceptical about what can be known, or proved, in logic: there is nothing that can be asserted about the mysterious reality of nature. You cannot characterise it or list its attributes. The Chan adepts are more muted and cautious than Laozi when writing about what he called the Dao, and they call Mind or Buddha nature, but they have not jettisoned the Dao. 

The Ethics of the Dao de Jing

Laozi is sceptical about those who trust words for fixing the ten thousand things in their place. Equally, he is sceptical about theory; he distrusts scholars and intellectuals. And he is very sceptical about public preachers and political moralisers:

                        When the great Tao is forgotten,

Kindness and morality arise.

When wisdom and intelligence are born,

The great pretence begins. [Chapter 18]

Laozi’s jaundiced view of most moralising reveals a much more nuanced sensitivity to the complexities of moral behaviour than, “Do not steal.” He tells us not to collect treasure and stealing will cease. Not to glorify heroes and people won’t be so quick to fight.  It is a morality grounded in a feeling for what is natural, and not too clever (he does not trust cleverness), and a deep distrust of claims to virtue, of spiritual pride. Things have gone wrong if you need to point out the virtues, thinks Laozi. More than that, he sees that rule-bound morality and categorising actions into good and bad may do more to exacerbate problems than to solve them. In Chapter 38 he writes that benevolence is the next best thing if Dao is lost, but that after that there is a decline into righteousness and once that is lost there is only propriety.

Chan master Dahui later wrote in similar style, “Good and bad come from your own mind… When your mind is clean and clear, all entanglements cease… Both substance and function are in their natural state… your own mind’s marvellous function of change and creation… enters into both purity and defilement without being affected by or attached to either.” This is a morality that tiptoes through the world, accepting nature’s way, not trying to control anything and suspicious of category labels such as bad and good. It sees the system, with multiple causes and conditions, all interrelated. It is very different from the rule-bound ethics, proscribing a wide range of human behaviours, that came out of Indian monasticism, or, for that matter, the rule-bound commandments of Christianity, marinated in punitive notions of sin and evil. In ethics, the Chinese Chan teachers like Dahui follow Laozi more naturally than they follow Indian Buddhist monastic rules.

Wu wei and the De of the Sage 

            For people to harmonise with the flow of nature and act with authentic good feeling they must not strive too hard, or try to wrest control with energetic power. The ideal is wu wei, effortless action that goes with the flow, “nothing acting,” and it is another of the great themes of the Dao De Jing.

Non-doing – and nothing not done…

Make the least effort

And the world escapes you. [Chapter 48, Addiss and Lombardo] 

Act and you ruin it.

Grasp and you lose it. [Chapter 64]

Simon Child teaches that, “Enlightenment is being out of the way.” Wu Wei is being out of the way, in the sense of not making the least effort to force the result, not acting with an ulterior purpose, an agenda, not grasping.

For Laozi, ‘the Sage’ is a major literary theme, as it is centuries later in the writings of the Chan masters of the Golden Age of Zen. The characteristic way of being of the enlightened person is described: Laozi tells us in the beginning, in Chapter 2, that,

…the Sage is devoted to non-action…

Lives but does not own,

Acts but does not presume,

Accomplishes without taking credit. [Addiss and Lombardo] 

The Buddha made the same point: ‘My practice,’ the Buddha said, ‘is the nonpractice, the attainment of nonattainment.’

            In the far East, Laozi himself has always been recognised as the archetypal Sage, the model of the enlightened man.

I take no action and people are reformed.

I enjoy peace and people become honest. [Chapter 57, Feng and English] 

…the Sage is sharp but not cutting,

Pointed but not piercing,

Straightforward but not unrestrained,

Brilliant but not blinding.[Chapter 58] 

‘The Sage’ is a Daoist subject which the early Chan literature dwells on at length. All the writers give accounts of how enlightenment transforms a person, and use fulsome imagery for the great skills of the sage. “Zen adepts just remain free, and are imperceptible to anyone… They walk on the bottom of the deepest ocean, uncontaminated, with free minds…” writes Yuanwu. In a beautiful passage, Hongzhi writes, “The worldly life of people who have mastered Zen is buoyant and unbridled, like clouds making rain, like the moon in a stream, like an orchid in a recondite spot, like spring in living beings. Their action is not self-conscious, yet their responses have order.” ‘Action that is not self-conscious’ would be a perfect definition of wu wei. Hongzhi is heir to Laozi and Dogen is heir to Hongzhi. Dogen studied with Hongzhi’s  successors at Hongzhi’s Tiantong monastery.

Dao De Jing means the classic of Dao and of De (Te, in the Wade-Giles transliteration). “De” is the Dao as a guide to action; how to respect the subtlety of the way things are and harness the integrity, the wholeness, of Dao. De is “virtue” in the sense of a quality, and also somewhat in the Greek sense of power or inner energy. It is acting like a sage, guided by Dao, wu wei style, without presuming, without desire, without a personal stake in the game. The model is a good parent:

Tao bears them and Te nurses them…

Bears them without owning them

Helps them without coddling them,

Rears them without ruling them.

This is called original Te. [Chapter 51, Addiss and Lombardo]           

In Chapter 49 Laozi says,

People who are not good

                                    I also treat well:

                                                Te as goodness. 

            Untrustworthy people             

                                    I also trust:

                                                Te as trust. [Addiss and Lombardo] 

In Chapter 68 he outlines the “Te of not contending:”

The accomplished person is not aggressive.

The good soldier is not hot-tempered.

The best conqueror does not engage the enemy.

The most effective leader takes the lowest place.

This is all of a piece with Laozi’s way of appreciating the power of water to wear down stone, the strong grip of a baby, the usefulness of the empty space in a bowl, the effectiveness of feminine qualities. Go with the grain. Respect the nature of things. There is a way to clean and fry a small fish without charging like a bull at a gate. And don’t be clever:

Ruling through cleverness

                        Leads to rebellion.[Chapter 65].

The Daoist inheritance in Chan Buddhism

The teachers who founded Chan, from Bodhidharma in the fifth century to Hongzhi in the twelfth century, took from the traditions of both sages, Laozi and Sakyamuni Buddha, and from Mahayana philosophers of the first and second century, to blend a Daoist Buddhism. The theorising and moralising of early Indian Buddhism were dropped. Meditation, as an individual’s inner path, or Dao, to discover truth for him or herself, became the central and only practice. ‘Mind’, or ‘Essence of Mind’, or ‘Buddhanature’ was the focus of their writings, as ‘Dao’ had been the focus of the Dao De Jing. Chan masters express hardly any interest in mainstream Buddhist ideas like suffering, rebirth, karma, meritorious deeds, ritual, scriptural knowledge and fussy ethical rules. Impermanence, on the other hand, which had always been at the heart of the Daoist account of nature, a continuous flow of changes seen in terms of yin and yang qualities in a dance of sixty four hexagrams symbolising decay and regeneration, was a strong theme in Chan. “The murderous demon of impermanence is instantaneous,” wrote Linji. “It does not choose between the upper and lower classes, or between the old and the young.”

The Buddha’s teaching of anatta, no permanent self, now deepened and extended by the Mahayana debates on sunyatta, the emptying of self, and the absence of self-essence, was at the very centre of the Chan vision. Bodhidharma’s, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy!” set the  tone for China.

Chan is a distillation of Buddhist theory into practice and paradox. Philosophical Indian Buddhism gave Daoism a much firmer foundation in a theory of perception and a theory of conditioned causation. From that solid base, Chan could afford to indulge the subtle watery spirit of the Dao. Laozi’s Daoism had several features which were retained in Chan. And as we have seen, there are Chan themes that were present in different proportions in both the Buddha’s and Laozi’s teachings.

The stripping out of inherited conditioning in order to clear the mind is a great theme of the Buddha’s teaching. “Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements,” he said. How to drop the defilements clouding the mind remained absolutely central to Chan teachings of the Tang dynasty. But Laozi also touched on this aspect of mind.  The Dao De Jing tells us in Chapter 33 that:

Knowing others is intelligent.

Knowing yourself is enlightened.

and in Chapter 48 that wu wei is the process:

Pursue knowledge, gain daily.

Pursue Tao, lose daily.

Lose and again lose,

Arrive at non-doing.

Non-doing – and nothing not done 

Letting go. Unlearning. Losing. These were Daoist themes but the Dao De Jing did not spell out what one must unlearn. In the Buddha’s teaching it was explicit: conditioned responses of attraction and aversion; all judgements and conditioned ideas. Clearing the mind is the topic that dominates the writings of the Tang and Song dynasty Chan masters. They develop what are only hints in the Dao De Jing, but much more substantial analysis in the Pali Buddhist sutras, into the core of their teaching. One or two quotations from any number will be sufficient to make the point, starting with Seng Tsan’s, “Simply avoid picking and choosing,” through Huang Po’s, “If you students of the Way desire knowledge of this great mystery, only avoid attachment to any single thing beyond Mind,” and coming to Yuanwu’s, “Shed views and interpretations that are based on concepts such as victory and defeat, self and others, right and wrong. Thus you pass through all that and reach a realm of great rest and tranquillity.”

Hui Neng was the founding father who preached it: “The mind should be framed in such a way that it will be independent of external or internal objects, at liberty to come or go, free from attachment and thoroughly enlightened without the least beclouding.” He summed up: “…so far as we get rid of all delusive ‘idea’ there will be nothing but purity in our nature.”

Conclusion

Chinese Daoist anti-philosophy was the mother of Chan; Indian Buddhist philosophy was its father. The child of these two inevitably has a sense of subtlety, a sense of humour and a sense of paradox. Chan is a Daoist form of Buddhism with Chinese characteristics. The Dao De Jing is more mystical, mysterious, poetic and enigmatic than the Pali sutras. It is a foundation text for my Zen.

 

Translations:

Tao Te Ching trans. Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, London, Wildwood House, first published 1973.

Tao Te Ching trans. Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo, Boston, Shambhala, first published 1993.