By Daniel Scharpenburg
What makes Zen different from other branches of Buddhism?
It’s sometimes hard to say, but there’s a sense of directness in Zen. Enlightenment is thought of as something remote in other branches of Buddhism, only to be attained after many lifetimes of strenuous effort. But in the Zen tradition, we think of Enlightenment as something normal and natural. It’s our true nature, something that can come to us at any moment.
Zen also teaches in a very direct and simple way; it points directly to Enlightenment. The Lankavatara Sutra, a foundational Zen text, talks about a turning about of the mind wherein our dualistic views are transcended—this is enlightenment.
In this state the mind is like a clear mirror, reflecting whatever appears exactly as it is, without obscuration. This is further described in a group of texts called the Prajnaparamita Sutras as, “No attainment with nothing to attain.” Enlightenment is already ours, one only has to see it, to notice it in the present moment.
Zen awareness is about dwelling in non-duality. Our typical streams of thought are usually rooted in duality. Zen training focuses on our intuitive mind rather than our rational one. Reasoning can take us very far. We can have the doctrine of Emptiness explained to us at length, and we can memorize sutras, but unless we step outside of the delusions we’re carrying we will have difficulty grasping it intuitively.
Our reasoning mind looks for things like “true” and “false.” Zen awareness is dwelling in a state that’s beyond that. Not true, not false, but also not both and not neither. That’s why Zen concepts are sometimes explored through paradox. The reasoning mind can’t handle paradox, so the intuitive mind has to push through.
The reasoning mind works entirely by discriminating, analyzing, and comparing. We are trying to come to a state of awareness beyond all of that, which we sometimes call Satori.
The awareness we are seeking is Prajnaparamita, the wisdom that is beyond. To get there, we have to turn our minds to dwell in the void of emptiness. The intuitive mind is something that we all have but very few of us can actually use it at will, and fewer still can use it at will all the time. We can only develop it by practicing its use.
It’s the mind that inspires the artist, the poet, the inventor, and the mystic. It’s the field of thought that is beyond picking and choosing. Satori is a flash of intuitive awareness. It’s deep and profound enough to break through the layers of delusion and let the truth of emptiness flow into our being. It’s challenging to describe because it’s an intuitive knowing that is beyond all concepts and labels.
Part of our problem is our own intellect. The power of our minds enable us to create labels and symbols for things that seem separate. We create artificial labels for everything, and then we act as though those labels are real and natural. Money, for example, is just a piece of paper. But we add meaning to it because we are told that we are supposed to.
Because the labels are easier to understand than reality, they are more stable and seem permanent. We have this sense of “self” that has an identity and a mind, that engages the world. But self is a label too, an artificial construct. With its direct emphasis, Zen points this out to us. The self we perceive ourselves to be isn’t our real nature. We might have a sort of internal conflict when we come to realize the difference between who we are and who we think we are.
When we don’t identify with the label of “I-Me-Mine” then our entire relationship with the world changes. Our relationship with the world becomes more intimate, authentic and real. The knower isn’t so separate from the known. When we have experiences, we can have them fully, rather than feeling separate from what’s happening.
It becomes clear that I am not separate from the entire totality of things. I am not part of the universe, the whole universe is contained within me.
This was described in Huayan Buddhism as an infinite net of jewels. Every jewel reflects all of the other jewels. Everything that is, is reflected in me.
Practice and enlightenment are not separate, that there’s no distinction between enlightenment and striving for enlightenment. We might think that we are practicing with the goal of attaining enlightenment, but it’s said the practice itself is enlightenment.
There is no separation between the path and the goal. Dwelling in this present moment, the eternal now, is enlightenment. One doesn’t practice to become a Buddha. One practices because one is a Buddha already.
Editor: John Author