Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ancestor's Zen and Tathagata Zen

Discussions of Zen's relationship to Mahayana Buddhism often raise the dichotomy of how words are taken and used in Zen. One of the famous mottos of Zen is that it is "not established on written words." This motto is intended to direct our attention away from searching written words for the truth to be found in our own mind or own nature. However, this motto itself becomes a sort of icon that is then mistakenly used by some to say that the Buddha's Sutras can be ignored.

In the Zen context, this dichotomy comes under the labels of "Ancestor's Zen" and "Tathagata Zen."

On the one hand, Ancestor's Zen acknowledges that words don't cut it and that we have to let go of discursive thnking models in order to focus on the direct pointing to our own nature of true suchness. This of course is where the so called "anti-intellectual" tendency arises in Zen. This movement of Zen began in full force with Nagarjuna's radical analysis of emptiness that took away all reliance on words in order to shove our noses into emptiness so we could experience the "revolution at the basis" of our awareness. Ancestor’s Zen removes the props of our conventional truths to show us where we stand on zero at any moment.

On the other hand, Tathagata Zen acknowledges that Zen comes through the Mahayana branch of the Tathagata's teaching of true suchness and so there is a fundamental need in the Bodhisattva's vow to remain in Samsara and give aid to beings of all capacities which includes talking about the structure and function of consciousness in order to help beings have the faith to practice and experience the “revolution at the basis.” Tathagata Zen shows us the functioning of Dharma in the plus and minus, expansion and contraction, of all activity that arises from zero.

The functioning of Ancestor’s Zen comes out most fully in the living interactions retold in the koans where we see the direct manifestation of true suchness that does not get caught up in the discriminatory meanings of words. The functioning of Tathagata Zen comes out most fully in the teishos and teachings of the Zen teachers from their “platforms” or “high seats.”

When we read works such as the The Sixth Ancestor’s Platform Sutra, John Blofeld’s great book The Zen Teaching of Huang Po or the various translations of The Record of Linji we see both Tathagata Zen and the Ancestor’s Zen represented in the sections on the teachings in the hall and the events in the field.

For example, a thorough reading of the Platform Sutra shows Huineng’s Ancestor’s Zen and Tathagata Zen. His Ancestor’s Zen is revealed in his famous poem

菩提本無樹 The root of Bodhi is treeless
明鏡亦非臺 The bright mirror also is not a platform
本來無一物 The root comes without a single thing
何處惹塵埃 What place can attract dust?

as well as in the famous interaction under the flag when he said “It is neither the flag nor the wind that is flapping; it is your mind flapping.”

Most of the Platform Sutra, however, is his exposition of Tathagata Zen from the high seat of the Platform. Here he is expounding on the great many themes of Mahayana including samadhi and prajna, confession and repentance, how to read and interpret the Sutras, the 5 aggregates (skandhas), the 12 entrances (ayatanas), the 18 realms (dhatus), and the transformation of the 8 consciousnesses (vijnanas) into the 4 wisdoms (jnana-prajna). Any view that Zen is anti-intellectual (in the generic sense) or anti-written word is destroyed by the Platform Sutra.

Tathagata Zen is all about reorienting the intellect from being lost in discursive thinking to turning the intellect toward true Suchness (Tathata). Experiencing and being aware of the coming and going (gata and agata) of suchness (tathata) is the meaning of the word contraction tathagata as it is used both for an epithet of the Buddha as the Tathagata and in the label Tathagata Zen.

The problem with misunderstandings of Tathagata Zen and the mistaken notion that Zen is non-intellectual comes from the belief that Zen is not involved with discrimination. However, this is a deep misunderstanding of the nature of Zen as a realization of the essential Mahayana tenet that the way of the Tathagatas and Bodhisattvas is to not abandon samsara but to realize the Path by remaining in the discriminations of samsara to show the way of liberation from samsaric suffering. In the Mahayana system of the “two truths”, the Tathagata Zen stance is that the ultimate truth exists only in relation to the One Suchness. What can be “called” ultimate truth is the constructed and relative conventional truth that points to the non-dual true nature of emptiness. However, if emptiness is itself taken literally to say that the Sutras are not part of Zen it is a grave error.

Huineng himself, though he was called “illiterate” was well versed in the Sutras. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 10 the Platform Sutra, “Handing Down Instructions,” in which he warns against taking the Zen admonition about not establishing written words too literally.

In the active functioning of your own nature and in conversations with people, while outwardly in appearances separate from appearances; while inwardly in emptiness separate from emptiness. If you wholly attach to appearances (i.e., hold materialist views), then your perverted views broaden. If you wholly grasp emptiness (i.e., hold a nihilist view), then your non-illumination (ignorance) broadens.

People who grasp emptiness have slandered the Sutras (by saying) “straight words do not use written words.” Since they say “Do not use written words” these people too are not united with (their own) speech, simply as this speech then is the appearance of written words. Again, to say, “The straight Way is not established by written words,” then this “not established” are both words and are written words. On seeing a person who explains, then immediately they slander the other’s words as being attached to written words. You who are ranked (as Dharma heirs) must know self-delusion like this is able repeatedly to slander the Buddha’s Sutras. Do not desire to slander the Sutras; the hindrances of the sin are countless.

In my view, those who say that Zen can be separated from the Mahayana are focusing on the One Suchness of the root of Zen. That is, the one mind of true suchness transcends the colors and designs of the robes of any single religion. Admittedly, there are Bodhisattvas who walk among us in every religious or non-religious cultural context pointing to the root of mind, but to explain the structure and functioning of consciousness without reference to the Mahayana Buddhist Sutras or to Mahayana Tathagata Zen seems to me to be a difficult proposition at best and a self-crippling impossible nightmare at worst.


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